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Now to the big Senate race in Big Sky Country. Back in 2006, Republicans lost the majority in the U.S. Senate, in part because of the Democrats' razor-close victory in Montana. This year, Republicans are within reach of retaking the Senate. And it's that same Democrat who is fighting to keep his seat, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Missoula.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If Jon Tester is going to win again in Montana, he has to turn out a lot of younger voters the way he did in 2006. And on that front, he does have some allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT)

EDDIE VEDDER: One, two, three (unintelligible)

KASTE: Pearl Jam gave a benefit concert for Tester last night, at the University of Montana. It was a favor from the bass player, Jeff Ament, who grew up in the same small town as Tester. The concert allowed the senator to dangle the state's hottest ticket in front of thousands of potential voters, and for him to bask in the praise of lead singer Eddie Vedder.

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VEDDER: It's not every day you get to do a benefit for a candidate that you believe in.

KASTE: Vedder saluted Tester, and the Democrats, for preserving the social safety net. But the opinions of a rock star don't carry much weight in Montana's more conservative communities - places like tiny Belgrade, where everybody comes out for the homecoming parade.

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KASTE: Talk of the social safety net certainly doesn't win over Cory Simpson, a cheerful woman wearing a hot dog suit.

CORY SIMPSON: You know, our life - I'll just tell you, my husband's an electrician, and he's put in bids and come in third over and over. So, you know, the American dream - he bought a hot dog cart, and we started our own small business.

KASTE: Republicans like Simpson seemed to be the majority here. Still, Sen. Tester works the crowd, shaking hands with the kind of small-town familiarity that Montanans expect from their elected officials.

SEN. JON TESTER: How you doing, man?

UNIDENTIFIED MONTANA RESIDENT #1: Pretty good.

TESTER: Good, good, good.

UNIDENTIFIED MONTANA RESIDENT #2: Jon, how's it going?

TESTER: Very well, thanks.

KASTE: And Tester certainly looks like he fits in. A burly guy, he dresses like the farmer he is. In 2006, he campaigned on the merits of his famously cheap, flat-top haircut. But this year, no amount of down-home charm can change the fact that he is a sitting Democratic senator, and that rubs a lot of these people the wrong way.

TESTER: How are you?

ROBERT SCHLOSSER: Can't wait to help put you out, bud.

KASTE: People like Robert Schlosser, who shakes his head as Tester walks away. The way Schlosser sees it, Tester and President Obama have been moving the country toward socialism.

SCHLOSSER: National health care? Sorry. People should be independent, should do their own thing.

KASTE: President Obama is not popular in Montana, and Republicans never miss a chance to link him to Tester.

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KASTE: At the headquarters of the challenger, Republican congressman Denny Rehberg, a sign on the wall says: He's a Hypocrite, Stupid - referring, presumably, to Tester. Rehberg himself was not available to talk to NPR, but his campaign manager, Erik Iverson, was.

ERIK IVERSON: Montanans are - they're getting it. They know that the candidate that they voted for in 2006, is not the senator they got today.

KASTE: He says Tester voted for anti-gun judges, environmental rules that hurt the coal industry, and an arms treaty that ended up cutting military spending in the state. To him, Tester has betrayed Montana.

IVERSON: It's about a guy who throws on a Carhartt, gets his flat-top haircut, and stands in front of a barn and tries to sell himself as a conservative Democrat. When in actuality, he's a dyed-in-the-wool, garden-variety liberal.

KASTE: But congressman Rehberg has his own image problems. While he identifies himself as a rancher, Democrats love to point out that he sold off his herd when he went to Washington, and that his operation now looks more like a real estate development. Still, Rehberg is slightly ahead in most polls, and the race is attracting record amounts of outside money to Montana, along with wall-to-wall attack ads.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Ending Social Security? Wishing he was a lobbyist? Denny Rehberg has a lot to say, and none of it is good for Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Cast his vote with Barack Obama 95 percent of the time. Six years later, Jon Tester's gone Washington.

KASTE: Tester admits to some concern about those ads.

TESTER: They cannot beat Jon Tester, the farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, and the record that he's done while he's served in the U.S. Senate. They can, possibly, have a chance at beating somebody that they're trying to define.

KASTE: Of course, Tester still is a farmer with a cheap haircut, and his Montana cred isn't really what's in question. What's in question is how many Montanans this year are willing to re-elect a senator who belongs to the same party as President Obama. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Missoula.

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