HELENA, Mont. — Denny Rehberg often wears cowboy boots while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, telling stories about his ranching background and ripping the "death tax" and "Obamacare," characterizations familiar to Montana's rural residents.
To Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the Republican congressman who wants to take his place is all hat and no cattle.
Describing himself as a "dirt farmer," Mr. Tester says Mr. Rehberg hasn't rounded up his own cattle in years, but has spent his time subdividing and developing what used to be his family's ranch.
"Building houses and mansion ranching is not ranching," Mr. Tester said at their first debate this summer.
The razor-tight race may come down to who is "more Montana."
Mr. Rehberg's campaign acknowledges that Mr. Tester may spend more of his free time farming, but the challenger says the first-term Democrat's support for President Obama's mandate that most everyone buy health insurance runs counter to Montanans' libertarian streak.
Mr. Rehberg cites his deep roots in ranching prior to leasing out his land due to the demands of his congressional office. He says managing cows is different from farming and requires a full-time presence.
"Frankly I am sorry for the people of Montana that he is wasting so much time as a U.S. senator talking about what a great farmer he is," Mr. Rehberg said in an interview. "Maybe he ought to spend a little bit more time trying to help get people back to work and expand the economy because that is what I am focused on. I don't think the people of Montana would particularly want me sitting around the ranch trying to keep the cows in the fence and putting water in front of them and such."
Each candidate lays claim and blame over who is the least elite, most authentic and best able to represent the state's 1 million rural residents in Washington, a city they view with great distrust.
Mr. Tester's two predecessors lost their populist appeal and re-election bids after becoming too identified with the city's Beltway interests.
The race, one of a few that will determine which party controls the Senate in 2013, is drawing millions of dollars in political money from out-of-state interest groups. Republicans need a net gain of four seats — three if GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins the presidency, because his vice president could break a tie vote — to regain control. Eleven weeks from the election, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin represent their best chances for pickups.
Mr. Tester's victory in 2006 helped Senate Democrats take over from Republicans.
Now that Mr. Tester is the incumbent, he's having to defend himself from attacks that he sold out to banks on debit card swipe fees and, perhaps more harmful, that he is a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies unpopular in Montana.
He is trying to distance himself from Mr. Obama by pointing out his opposition to new environmental regulations and proposed farm child labor rules that were considered but abandoned by the Labor Department.
Mr. Tester also is pushing for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that runs from the Canadian oil fields south through Montana. Mr. Obama has postponed a decision on it until after the election.
But Mr. Tester wouldn't take back the politically harmful health care vote if he could do the first term over gain. Instead he said he wishes he had done more to stop the intervention in Afghanistan and bring the troops home, pointing to the maimed soldiers he's visited and the billions spent on the war.
Mr. Rehberg said he would take back the vote for the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 program to secure driver's licenses. The Real ID act was intended to help thwart terrorists, but the congressman said that at the time of the vote, he did not know that many in his state would come to despise the program.
Montana State University political scientist David Parker says Republicans "are attacking Mr. Tester in ways that would push him away from that image as a Montana farmer: One, he is with Mr. Obama. Two, he is a nasty guy. And three, yeah, he makes and eats his own beef, but he votes against Montanans and their interests."
Mr. Parker said that Mr. Tester's connection to the land is his strongest asset, and he can't have Mr. Rehberg seen as a rancher, too, because that would obscure the differences between them.
The Tester campaign argues that Mr. Rehberg hasn't bought or sold cattle since at least 2000, citing state livestock inspection records. Some of the attacks deride Mr. Rehberg as a multimillionaire land developer.
Mr. Rehberg isn't ceding the ranching background. He often talks about his family being forced to sell parts of the historic family ranch near Billings in order to pay inheritance taxes — the derided federal "death tax" — after his grandmother died in the 1970s. He managed the family ranch for several years before winning the state's lone U.S. House seat in 2000.
In the House, Mr. Rehberg carefully has maintained his conservative credentials even while sometimes turning on Republicans, such as when he backed the 2009 expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Last year, he was one of just three other Republicans in the House to oppose Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal that would transform Medicare.