Third-degree Burns

Campaign 2006 | Democratic challenger Jon Tester is scorching Montana's incumbent GOP senator-at the debate podium and on the street

Issue: "Too close to call," Oct. 28, 2006

BOZEMAN and BILLINGS, Mont. - For almost two decades, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns has held the ear of his constituents. But over the last several months, the folksy 71-year-old Montanan may have lost his grip-tossing a whirring chainsaw into the GOP's increasingly tenuous juggling act to maintain majorities in both House and Senate.

Burns raised his arms and waved them vigorously during a recent debate at Bozeman's Montana State University, attempting in vain to stem an outburst of giggles emanating from the standing-room-only crowd. The staunch supporter of President Bush might have expected such reaction to his remarks on the need for the Patriot Act. Attempts to paint the chilling realities of terrorism are met with rolling eyes and mirth-filled mockery on many campuses.

Democratic challenger Jon Tester was ready to give the room what it wanted: "We're taking freedoms away from honest people," he said of the Patriot Act, reiterating his consistent call for its repeal. Unlike Burns, who fought the crowd at every turn and often sounded desperate with cliché-filled diatribes, Tester spoke with calm surety and controlled the estimated 1,200 audience members with ease.

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Polling data reveal that Tester's command of the electorate stretches well beyond university campuses. With the election less than a month away, Zogby, Rasmussen, and Gallup all put Tester ahead of Burns in recent surveys. The latest figures, from a Mason-Dixon poll in late September, show Tester leading 47-40-a sizable advantage in a race once considered too close to call.

Burns, with a penchant for spurning political correctness, is largely to blame for the sudden disparity in the polls, tripping on his tongue with considerable regularity over the past several months. He recently characterized the enemies in the war on terror as those who "drive taxi cabs in the daytime and kill at night." He has also cracked several senseless ethnic jokes, and in his most publicized misstep-for which he has since apologized-Burns told a group of firefighters flown in from Virginia that they did a "piss-poor job" of digging trenches around a 143-square-mile blaze.

Tester has capitalized on such gaffes to cast Burns as an insensitive bigot out of touch with Montana values. That Burns accepted more money than any other member of Congress from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff only furthers that image-never mind that the funds have since gone to charity.

In contrast, Tester's campaign emphasizes its man's rural roots: a farmer from eastern Montana deeply connected to the land, family, and faith. But Republicans warn that such Rockwellian window dressing cannot mask Tester's true identity: a tax-and-spend liberal hiding beneath a conservative haircut. To uncover the reality behind those competing caricatures, WORLD spent a day with the man who may unseat an 18-year GOP incumbent.

An icy north wind whipped through Tester's notes as the stocky, crew-cut politician delivered an outdoor news conference on the morning after his Bozeman debate with Burns. Tester took the opportunity to pile on his sinking opponent, suggesting Burns supports a federal sales tax that would increase the annual tax burden on low-income Montana families by more than five times.

Such blistering attacks have come to define much of the race, both sides filling the airwaves and newspapers with accusations rooted in half-truth and questionable statistics. Burns labels Tester "a taxer." Tester charges Burns with "taking money from Abramoff to change votes."

For both candidates, the negative campaigning has worked in some areas and backfired in others. Tester has commanding leads in most of the state's western cities, while Burns continues holding court further east. Billings, located in central Montana, represents a sort of middle ground, the type of demographic on which the election could turn. On this day, Tester hoped to turn a few heads left.

He stepped inside his Billings campaign headquarters, a shabby maze of hallways and offices decorated hastily with handwritten signs and bumper stickers. The humble operation betrayed Tester's uphill fundraising battle. The 50-year-old president of the state Senate expects to spend about $4 million this fall, less than half of the opposition's budget. Nevertheless, he considers such spending exorbitant and supports campaign finance reform to significantly reduce it-a position consistent with his high view of government solutions to problems.

Tester huddled briefly with his public-relations staff, planning out the day's events. Dressed in a tan suit with blue shirt and no tie, he maintained a look of casual professionalism, approachable yet polished. The first stop on the docket: a retirees' community center complete with gift shop, cafeteria, and the faint smell of aged books. Tester slipped into the scene easily, shaking hands and reminiscing of Montana past. One elderly man commented gruffly on the recent influx of developers overtaking farm land with box stores and strip malls. "It makes me cry," Tester responded, shaking his head.


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