When the campaign for U.S. Senate here is over and voters have been saturated with as much as $20 million worth of advertising -- in a state of just 935,000 people -- it is possible that Montanans will decide whether to send Jon Tester to Washington, D.C., based on who he is not.
He is not Conrad Burns -- not the three-term, gaffe-prone Republican incumbent who was the top recipient in Congress of money linked to Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe lawmakers.
Yet with both sides deep into what is widely regarded as one of the nation’s fiercest and most competitive Senate races this year -- the candidates are even in some polls -- voters are also starting to focus on just who Tester is.
As his campaign ads emphasize, Tester, 50, is a third-generation wheat farmer from the golden plains of north-central Montana. He’s a burly, no-nonsense person, with a flattop haircut and three fingers missing on his left hand, lost in a meat-grinder accident when he was 9.
He is a onetime public-school teacher and current president of the Montana Senate. As just about anyone with access to a television here knows, he drives a pickup: “Special interests will never hitch a ride in this truck,” he says in one ad.
According to his foes, there’s plenty to be said against Tester. For one, he is a Democrat -- and, one ad alleges, he wants to ride the big-spender “gravy train” to Washington to join the likes of Ted Kennedy. Republicans say Tester is a darling of “extreme liberal bloggers,” “Hollywood elites” and those who want to “cut and run” from Iraq.
Voters tuning in to the campaign get two dramatically different messages.
One is a portrayal of a candidate and themes that many Democrats say can lead their party to victory in conservative-leaning states -- and to control of Congress -- in November.
The other is of Republicans hammering back, as they work to keep their majority, even with flawed incumbents and polls suggesting that many Americans are ready for a change in Congress.
Tester figures the voters “won’t buy it” -- the image of him as a ravenous liberal, that is. He says this as he drives his 9-ton 1986 Case International combine across his 1,800 acres, harvesting a crop of organic gluten-free grain he planted in the spring.
“They know that under a Democratic governor and a Democratic state Senate, we eliminated taxes on 13,000 small businesses,” Tester said over the roar of the combine. “They know that what we stand for is a fair shake.”
Among jobs Democrats will perform better than the GOP, he says, are health insurance -- Montana has one of the nation’s highest rates of uninsured people -- and energy. Farmers have been hit hard by increased fuel prices, and Tester echoes popular Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in calling for incentives to develop alternative energy sources, including the reserves of coal in eastern Montana.
Tester jumped into state politics eight years ago -- and won in what had been a reliably Republican state Senate district -- by seizing on an energy-related theme: Montana’s experiment with electricity deregulation, which, as in several other states, became a political disaster when prices soared.
“It was dereg that pushed me to the point of doing it,” Tester said, as the sun dropped on a picture-book blue-sky day. “The whole deal just didn’t look right to me. I didn’t think it would serve regular folks that well, and it didn’t.”
Both sides in this campaign have run ads using Tester’s distinctive haircut as a humorous theme.
“Fella comes in for a trim on his flattop because he’s running for U.S. Senate,” an actor dressed as a barber says in a Republican-funded ad. “Guess he didn’t want anybody to know he opposes a gay-marriage ban. Thinks flag-burning is a right. And supports higher taxes.
“So I told him, ‘You’re gonna need a lot more than a haircut to cover up all that.’ ”
(On gay marriage and burning the flag, Tester says he supports neither, but also opposes amending the “sacred document” of the federal Constitution to deal with either issue. He says his tax policies would lower the burden for middle-class taxpayers.)
The Tester campaign responded with a spot that shows Tester getting his hair cut, purportedly inspiring a lot of other Montanans of all ages to adopt the same hairstyle.
An announcer says Tester’s campaign themes of “better schools” and “affordable healthcare” are catching on, as is his pledge to “end Sen. Burns’ kind of corruption.”
“I’m Jon Tester and I approve this message,” Tester says at the end, concluding with a laugh: “I approve the haircut too.”
In many ways the race comes back to the incumbent senator. To hear Tester tell it to audiences across Montana, Burns “has been around Washington too long.”
What is less in contention is that Burns, 71, is prone to outbreaks of political foot-in-mouth.
As Duane Guenthner, a retired oil worker, put it at a rally where Tester spoke last month: “The biggest thing Jon Tester has going for him right now is Conrad’s foot.”
Even Burns admits he is a walking gaffe machine.
“I can self-destruct in one sentence,” Burns told a campaign rally last month in Billings. “Sometimes in one word.”
At a fundraiser attended by First Lady Laura Bush on Wednesday, Burns offered the comment that the U.S. faces terrorists who “drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night.” The remark was criticized as anti-Muslim. A spokesman later said the senator was simply pointing out terrorists could be anywhere.
Burns has apologized in past years for calling Arabs “ragheads” and, in another instance, for recounting someone else’s racial epithet and saying that living with blacks in Washington, D.C., was a major “challenge.”
In July, Burns issued an apology to federal firefighters battling a wildfire in Montana, whom he publicly berated for doing a terrible job, according to one of the workers.
Last month, he raised eyebrows when he interrupted his own speech at a campaign rally to take a cellphone call from the maintenance man at his suburban Virginia home.
“Hugo is a nice little Guatemalan man who is doing some painting for me,” Burns explained to the crowd as he flipped his phone shut. “No, he’s terrific. Love him.”
The Tester campaign, which has hired a video “tracker” to film all of Burns’ public appearances, wasted no time in posting the clip on YouTube, the video-sharing website.
Many nonpartisan political experts rate the race a toss-up, but at least two of them -- influential analysts Stuart Rothenberg and Larry J. Sabato -- have moved their assessment of the race to Tester’s favor.
Rothenberg says the state is currently “leaning” toward the Democrat; Sabato rates the race a “likely” Democratic pickup.
Still, Burns is a resourceful politician and takes credit for steering hundreds of millions in federal funds to Montana. In this sparsely populated state, many voters say they have had personal contact with Burns, and can cite an example of him responding to a concern or straightening out a problem.
Despite pledging in 1988 to serve no more than two terms, he survived a brutal race in 2000 for a third term, besting now-Gov. Schweitzer with 51% of the vote.
Given the interest that both parties have in the race, it is generally expected to be the most expensive race ever in Montana.
Tester said he would emphasize a campaign theme that he struck in several recent appearances, including a rally in Laurel, a farm town just west of Billings.
“Real Montana is ready for real change,” Tester said. “Government just isn’t working for regular folks.”
And then, smoothing his hand over his flattop, he added: “I may not look like a lot of other senators. But isn’t it time the Senate looked a little bit more like Montana?”