Democrats Hope for 'Abramoff Effect' in Montana

Conrad Burns isn't the only Capitol Hill figure caught up in the scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. hide caption

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Montana is one state Democrats hope to turn from red to blue this fall. Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the incumbent, received the most money from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and his challenger, state Senate President Jon Tester, is pounding away at the issue. Note: This story contains language that some may find inappropriate.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

The Montana Senate race is one of the closest in the country and could be one of the Democrats' best chances to unseat a Republican incumbent. Three-term Republican Conrad Burns has a strong conservative and a strong record of support for President Bush. But Senator Burns has also been touched by the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

BLOCK: Burns chairs a key appropriations committee. He received more money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates than any other member of Congress. And Indian tribes in Montana question links between those contributions and a federal grant to an Indian tribe in another state. Now Democrats have an opening.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer has been traveling in Montana.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: The Democratic challenger in the Montana race is the president of the State Senate, Jon Tester, who's set himself two tasks - to introduce himself to Montana voters and continually make the point that he is no Conrad Burns.

Here's Tester introducing himself at a meeting of the Montana Hospital Association.

State Senator JON TESTER (Democrat, Montana): I'm a dry land farmer. I've really had the opportunity and privilege to farm the land that my grandparents homesteaded almost a century ago. I've also been a schoolteacher, ran a custom butcher shop, and I'm currently president of the Montana Senate and a candidate for United States Senate.

WERTHEIMER: Tester lives in Big Sandy in the northern part of the state and his TV ads emphasize Montana - Tester tossing hay bales in front of the barn, standing in front of mountain scenery or driving two-lane roads in his red pick up. Which he's doing in this TV ad.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Senator TESTER: You see, special interests have a tight grip on Washington, leaving us out. It doesn't have to be that way. Special interests will never hitch a ride in this truck.

WERTHEIMER: Tester has a low-key manner, looks like an aging linebacker with a bit of a belly, and a signature flat-top haircut. Standing on the bluffs overlooking Billings with Brian Schweitzer, the Democratic Governor, Tester made the point that Burns does not deliver for Montana, but for Washington lobbyists, particularly one named Jack Abramoff who's on his way to jail.

Senator TESTER: Truth is and the reason I'm here is because Montana deserves better. Montana deserves the kind of honest leadership that we've had in the past that we currently don't have right now.

WERTHEIMER: Jon Tester's call for change has registered with Montana voters. We followed Tester through the tailgate parties before Montana State's Bobcats lost last weekend.

Senator TESTER: Hey, hey. How you guys doing?

WERTHEIMER: MSU is in Bozeman inside of several snowy mountain ranges. Sparky Catky(ph) is a guidance counselor and an independent voter. He's going with Tester.

Mr. SPARKY CATKY: I just think it's time for a change in Montana, and I think Conrad Burns's time is up. Needs to make a change.

WERTHEIMER: Did anything particularly move you in that direction?

Mr. CATKY: Well, I think a lot of the Abramoff thing was big and a lot of that stuff. And I don't know. It just seems like after a few years, it's just good to have change.

WERTHEIMER: But we also met quite a few Montanans who plan to stick with Conrad Burns, mainly because he's delivered many millions in federal funds to Montana. Roy Ditler(ph) is a retired Naval officer. We spoke at a Burns campaign in Great Falls.

Mr. ROY DITLER: I trust that the Senator will correct any errors that he probably has made. When I get perfect, I'll throw stones at him. We all do.

WERTHEIMER: Montana has a long tradition of sending senators back to Washington, long enough to give a small population big clout. Seniority is Burns's major advantage. He mentions it at every public appearance, including this Burns campaign picnic in Great Falls.

Senator CONRAD BURNS (Republican, Montana): We're going to march forward. I'm in a position with seniority and position now that we can make some really exciting things happen for the state of Montana. We're going to continue to do that, have a great meal.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Burns had a popular farm program on the radio before running for office. He was known for wisecracks between the crop reports. He's still at it. Montanans mostly like it, but not this year. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee made an ad about an unguarded comment this summer.

(Soundbite of television ad)

Unidentified Announcer: The following contains language by Conrad Burns unsuitable for Montana.

After 9/11, our country's bravest went to help, including one decorated unit from Virginia. This year, they helped fight our forest fires, but Conrad Burns said they had done, quote, "a piss poor job." And while pointing at one, "He hasn't done a goddamn thing."

WERTHEIMER: That incident is one of Burns problems. Also, uneasiness about the war in Iraq. But the most sensitive topic is, of course, the scandal swirling around Jack Abramoff. Burns says he's not going to talk about that.

Senator BURNS: Go ask the Democrats. They're the authority on Abramoff. They started, they pulled that sabre some 16 months ago. And nothing's happened.

WERTHEIMER: The Washington Post had a story that said that you were not a target of the investigation, but that that was not the same as not being involved in the investigation at all. What's your view of that?

Senator BURNS: I'm not a target.

WERTHEIMER: That was in Great Falls on Sunday. The night before, at a campaign debate in Butte, the first question to Conrad Burns came from Chuck Johnson. He's the state's best known political columnist.

Mr. CHUCK JOHNSON (Columnist): Could you explain to us in the audience your relationship with Jack Abramoff and his staff, why you accepted campaign donations from them?

Senator BURNS: There we go again. Baseless allegations drummed up in a negative campaign that started almost a year and a half ago.

WERTHEIMER: Burns concluded that he has never shortchanged Montana.

Here's part of Jon Tester's response.

Senator TESTER: Senator Burns collected more money from Jack Abramoff than anyone else in Congress. And he gave Jack Abramoff everything he wanted from his committee, as chairman of the committee. It cost Montana a lot.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Burns accused his opponent of being soft on terror for opposing the Patriot Act, which Burns described as giving the government the same tools to fight terror that are used fighting organized crime.

Here's Tester again.

Senator TESTER: Let me be clear. I don't want to weaken the Patriot Act. I want to repeal it. It's that thick. It does far more than his simple explanation. What it does is this, it takes away your freedoms. This country was based on freedom. Hundreds of thousands Americans have fought and died for our freedoms. If we lose our freedoms, the terrorists will have won.

WERTHEIMER: Burns attacked Tester's main theme, that Burns is too close to lobbyists, and Tester bit back in this exchange.

Senator BURNS: Last week, Mr. Tester was in where? Washington DC. A place I call 17 square miles of logic free environment. Guess what he was doing. Having a fundraiser with those lobbyists. Don't you find that odd? A little bit hypocritical?

Senator TESTER: The difference is that I've dealt with lobbyists for a long time in the Montana legislature. Not once have I changed a vote for money.

WERTHEIMER: Four additional debates are scheduled, expected to be rambunctious. Incumbents generally don't like to give their opponents that kind of opportunity. That risk may be part of the price Burns is paying for ties to Jack Abramoff.

Reporting on Montana Senate race, I'm Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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