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Anxious Democrats go their own way

Times Staff Writer

Election day was still more than a year off when Sen. Max Baucus recently stopped by the new Boys & Girls Club along a creek outside this fast-growing city in the shadow of southwestern Montana’s jagged Bridger Mountains.

But the silver-haired Democrat looked every bit a candidate in a nail-biter as he finger-painted with children at the log-cabin clubhouse and then raced 100 miles down the Missouri River to the state capital to talk up what he was doing for the state in Washington.

Baucus is the longest-serving senator in Montana history. As chairman of the finance committee, he writes the nation’s tax laws. He is one of the most popular politicians in the state. And his party, which controls the governor’s office, the Legislature and the state’s two Senate seats, is on a roll.

Yet, as he prepares to run for a fifth term next year, Baucus is entering treacherous territory. Despite recent gains by Democrats in the Rocky Mountain West, party officials across the region are increasingly anxious that their congressional candidates may get dragged under by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

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The New York senator and Democratic front-runner was by a wide margin the most unpopular of 13 potential presidential candidates in Montana, according to a June survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Billings Gazette; 61% said they would not consider voting for her, compared with 49% who would not vote for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and 45% who would not vote for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. The most unpopular Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was rejected by 51%.

Recent polls in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona have found similar distaste for Clinton.

“She’s carrying huge negatives out here,” said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Colorado pollster who said Democratic congressional candidates would have to highlight their differences with the national party to be successful next year. “It’s that liberal East Coast image that is so hard to sell in the West.”

One key advisor to a prominent Democratic congressional candidate, who asked not be to identified discussing tensions within the party, went even further. “It’s a disaster for Western Democrats,” he said. “It keeps me up at night.”

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The Clinton campaign said the alarm was unwarranted and expressed confidence that as voters in the West got to know Clinton, they would back her and the party’s congressional candidates. “We expect to head a very strong ticket in the West,” spokesman Mo Elleithee said.

Republicans, who have lost ground across the Mountain West for two election cycles, have challenges of their own. President Bush and the war in Iraq remain deeply unpopular. The GOP presidential nominee may also be an East Coast politician: former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

And although most states in the region will probably back the Republican presidential candidate, Democrats appear to have the momentum. The party has picked up seats in Congress in four of the last five elections. And it controls governors’ mansions in five of the eight states of the inland West; in 2000, it was zero.

“There is a steady march,” said Karl Struble, a veteran Democratic strategist who recently opened an office in Arizona to complement his Washington, D.C., headquarters. “My client base is moving west.”

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Democratic strategists see opportunities in the shifting demographics of the region, where the Latino population is expanding and where major metropolitan areas, particularly in the Southwest, are booming. Both Latinos and city-dwellers lean toward Democrats.

But party leaders and strategists also attribute the recent gains to candidates who connect with Western voters and their values, in part by distinguishing themselves from the national Democratic Party.

Perhaps no one is more of a poster child for that success than Montana’s colorful governor, Brian Schweitzer. Three years ago, Schweitzer became the darling of Democratic politicos when he swaggered into office with a dog and a pair of cowboy boots.

Schweitzer, a cattle rancher and the grandson of homesteaders, is no Democrat in name only. He is a proponent of energy conservation and environmental regulation. He favors abortion rights. And while the Bush administration was pushing to expand surveillance powers with the Patriot Act, Schweitzer pardoned 78 Montanans, most of them German immigrants, who had been convicted of sedition during World War I.

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He also champions gun rights and coal -- a major Montana export -- positions that reflect clear differences from the Democratic Party’s coastal wings.

“There are two kinds of people in Montana,” Schweitzer joked in a recent telephone interview. “Those who are for gun control, and those who run for public office.”

Across the border in Wyoming -- where voters chose a Democratic governor in 2002 and reelected him by a landslide four years later -- Democratic congressional candidate Gary Trauner offered another caution.

“Maybe in Wyoming, it’s easier to be partisan if you are a Republican because you have registration numbers on your side. You can’t be if you’re a Democrat,” said Trauner, a businessman who nearly knocked off Republican Rep. Barbara Cubin in one of the major surprises of the 2006 elections. “I think people, particularly in the West, want their leaders to be independent.”

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Baucus, who helped President Bush pass sweeping tax cuts early in 2001 and is a stalwart opponent of gun-control legislation, routinely has one of the most conservative voting records among Democrats.

Highlighting that independence may be more difficult in a year when the presidential campaign will focus attention on a national party that is more liberal and more partisan.

“Westerners for a long time believed that Democratic presidential candidates followed some national Democratic scheme to tax and spend,” said Pat Williams, a former Democratic congressman from Montana who served 18 years in the House. “Democrats are still pushing uphill here.”

Clinton is pushing more than most.

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In Arizona, where Democrats hope to pick up at least one congressional seat next year, 37% of the respondents in a recent Cronkite/Eight Poll said they would never vote for Clinton; 3% said they would never vote for Obama. Opposition to Clinton was strongest among Republicans, but a third of independents, who were crucial to many Democratic congressional victories in 2006, said they would never vote for the former first lady. Clinton’s unfavorable ratings also far outpaced other Democratic candidates in recent polls in Nevada and Colorado, two states where Democrats hope to make gains next year.

In the past, some Democratic congressional candidates in the Mountain West have kept their distance from their party’s presidential pick to underscore their independence. In 2004, Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, a former prosecutor who won the state’s open Senate seat that year, almost never appeared in public with Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the party’s presidential nominee. This campaign season will probably be no different.

Pollster Ciruli and others familiar with Colorado politics expect Rep. Mark Udall, the leading Democratic contender for the state’s open Senate seat, to distance himself from Clinton, if she wins the nomination.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who heads the House Democratic campaign effort, said party officials would not push to link candidates with the presidential nominee. “We have to have candidates that connect with their constituents,” he said. “Where our candidates disagree with the nominee, whoever that may be, it will be important to distinguish themselves.”

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Baucus dismisses the potential impact of a Clinton candidacy. “I’m not concerned about anybody,” he said after his Helena, Mont., news conference. “I don’t even know who the Democratic nominee is going to be.”

But Baucus, whose victory margins have been three times larger in nonpresidential election years, isn’t taking any chances.

He had raised more than $6 million for his campaign through July, which is as much as he spent in his 2002 race and more than all but six of the 31 senators expected to seek reelection next year, according to records collected by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

This summer he barnstormed the state, talking with Montanans at cookouts he calls “Baucus burger bonanzas.” In Bozeman, his visit to the Boys & Girls Club had all the hallmarks of a meticulously planned campaign stop.

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Children, parents and club staff thanked Baucus for helping to build the complex. And reporters and cameramen trailed the entourage as the senator admired the computer room, art studio and gymnasium.

Baucus, who had just shepherded through the Senate legislation expanding health insurance for low-income children, sat down with Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in front of a hand-picked audience that thanked the senator for his work and pleaded with Leavitt to tell President Bush not to veto the bill.

Afterward, Baucus carried the message outside, where he planted himself in front of a bank of television cameras and intoned: “Every American should have health insurance.”

He did not mention that a Democrat in the White House would help the cause.

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noam.levey@latimes.com


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