Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's campaign swing this week through Republican-leaning Western states appears to be paying off, as a new poll shows he is leading Republican Sen. John McCain by five percentage points in Montana in the race for president.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Thursday shows the Illinois senator attracting 48 percent of the vote in the mountain state, compared with 43 percent for Mr. McCain.
The numbers are a reversal from April, when a Rasmussen survey showed the Arizona senator leading Mr. Obama in Montana 48 percent to 43 percent. That was before Mr. Obama clinched his party's nomination and defeated New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by 16 percentage points in the Montana Democratic primary.
"It wouldn't have surprised me to see the race [in Montana] close ... but when the numbers actually pop out at the end of the day and you look and see Barack Obama is ahead in a state that Democrats hardly ever win, then yes, that is a surprise," said Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports.
Mr. Obama has spent considerable time, energy and money campaigning in Montana, and has been running state-wide television advertisements in recent weeks. The senator also chose to spend his Fourth of July holiday Friday at a parade and picnic in Butte, Mont.
"To win out here, you have to take us seriously," said Montana Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O'Brien. "Nobody can remember the last time - if ever - a presidential campaign went up on the air [in Montana], and Obama's already had two ads up on TV here.
"We're a pretty cheap date, but those [ads] are still substantive buys."
Mr. Obama's began his tour of the West on Wednesday with an event in Colorado Springs before stopping in Fargo, N.D., on Thursday.
While in Fargo, he said he was open to refining his plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq in 16 months based on what he hears from military commanders during his upcoming trip there.
"I am going to do a thorough assessment when I'm there," he told reporters on the airport tarmac here. "I'm sure I'll have more information and continue to refine my policy."
During his campaign, Mr. Obama has gone from a staunch opponent of the Iraq war to more nuanced rhetoric that calls for a phased-out withdrawal of all combat brigades that, at a rate of one or two a month, could last 16 months.
Despite Thursday's poll results, recent election history suggests Mr. Obama still may have a struggle to win Montana's three electoral college votes. The last time the state voted for a Democrat for president was 1992, when Bill Clinton won 38 percent of the vote, compared with the first President Bush's 35 percent and Ross Perot's 26 percent.
Four years later, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole carried the state with 44 percent of the vote, with Mr. Clinton winning 41 percent and Mr. Perot getting 14 percent.
In Montana's 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 25 percentage points. And in 2004, President Bush beat Democratic Sen. John Kerry by 20 percentage points.
While an Obama victory in Montana would be stunning, the conservative and Republican-leaning state is a bit of a political enigma. Both of the state's U.S. senators - Max Baucus and Jon Tester - are Democrats, as is Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The Rasmussen telephone survey, which was conducted Tuesday and included 500 likely Montana voters, showed Mr. Obama receiving a 32 percent "very favorable" rating, compared with Mr. McCain's 24 percent.
The poll had Mr. Obama leading Mr. McCain among voters younger than 50, including a 27 percentage-point lead among voters younger than 30. Mr. McCain leads among those older than 50.
Mr. Obama is supported by 89 percent of Montana Democrats, while Mr. McCain would get the vote from 85 percent of Republicans.
Forty-two percent of the poll participants said Mr. Obama is too inexperienced to be president, while 25 percent say Mr. McCain is too old for the job.