Robert Novak

Burns has been pounding the state with the TV ad message that "Tax-hike Tester is too liberal for Montana" and would have voted differently from Montana's other senator, Democrat Max Baucus, on the Bush tax cuts, Medicare prescription drugs, the energy bill, Patriot Acts I and II, the flag amendment and the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts. In response, Baucus, who likely will need Burns defeated to regain the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship, quickly cut a radio spot avowing his support for Tester.

Burns's problem last week became how to keep trumpeting Montanans' fear of taxes. The national Republican money tap had been closed for a hopeless campaign, as Burns's agents pleaded for an additional $300,000. Burns himself got presidential adviser Karl Rove on his cell phone to beg for more money. By last weekend, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman said cash was on the way. What's more, Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush were scheduled for Montana visits this week, on Thursday and Friday respectively.

Montana is a state where Bush's presence is not a liability. Tester's TV spots are free of Bush-bashing and stay away from Iraq. Instead, the campaign theme is to connect Burns with "oil company giveaways," "big contracts to Halliburton" and "billions in pork, including bridges to nowhere." On one ad, Tester declares his opposition to such corporate welfare and declares: "This won't get me contributions from Jack Abramoff, but it sure is the right thing to do for Montana."

Wrapping Abramoff around Burns may have been enough to defeat him two weeks ago, but this election now looks too close to call -- thanks to fear of taxes. Tester has lashed back to claim, inaccurately, that Burns advocates a 23 percent national sales tax on top of income taxes. The tax issue, though not emphasized by either party nationwide, is mitigating damage to the Republican Party.

Robert Novak

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

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