Robert Novak

Just two weeks ago, Republican Sen. Conrad Burns appeared dead in trying for a fourth term. Polls gave his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Jon Tester, a double-digit lead, and that caused party leaders in Washington to write off Burns. But less than a week before the election, Burns has closed to within a few percentage points of Tester.

The reason can be found in this Burns television ad: "Jon Tester isn't being honest when he claims he cut taxes [as president of the state senate]. In fact, Tester raised taxes on more than 16,000 small businesses. . . . Tester supports a $2,000 tax increase on families. Tester's a politician and a taxer who'll say anything to get elected."

Thanks to a late infusion of cash from Washington, Burns is pounding Tester as a taxer too liberal for Montana. This huge, sparsely populated state reflects the 2006 national political chess game. Democrats want a referendum on Burns, while Republicans want a choice between Burns and Tester. Which tactic works will determine the winner here and perhaps control of the Senate.

Montana for the last half century has been red in presidential and blue in senatorial elections. Since 1952, Lyndon Johnson in '64 and Bill Clinton '92 are the only Democrats to carry the state for president. In that same period, only one Republican from Montana was elected to the Senate: Conrad Burns. Regarded here as a potential accident whenever he opens his mouth, he barely survived two of his three elections.

Among Republican senators, only Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania was viewed by the party's high command as more vulnerable than the 71-year-old Burns as this campaign cycle began. Never wildly popular, he was being swept under by the Jack Abramoff scandal. His return early this year of over $150,000 in campaign contributions related to the disgraced Republican lobbyist did not arrest his fall. Republican strategists in Washington thought Burns was gone and wanted him to drop his candidacy.

But Burns had one asset: Jon Tester, the surprise Democratic primary winner. The consensus here is that Tester is the only possible Democrat who could lose to Burns. One businessman I interviewed said he felt Burns ought to go but is voting for him because Tester had a proven anti-business record.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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