President Obama hasn't visited Montana in years, but he's casting a long shadow over Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's re-election chances.
In a race marked by jostling over which candidate is the most politically independent, the freshman Democrat has been slammed by accusations that he's too willing to dance to Mr. Obama's tune. His opponent, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, has all but printed up T-shirts stating that Mr. Tester votes with the president 95 percent of the time.
"One of the big themes of this race is, Who's the real Montanan? Who's more independent? Who's willing to buck his party?" said Robert Saldin, a political scientist at the University of Montana. "That's what this is all about: Is Jon Tester a real Montanan, or is he doing the White House's bidding?"
Being linked to the president might not be a big drawback in some states, but it could be the kiss of death in Montana. Voters in Montana didn't show much love for Mr. Obama in 2008, and they like him even less now: A Real Clear Politics average of the latest poll numbers shows Republican nominee Mitt Romney leading the race by 10.3 percentage points in the state.
The two-peas-in-a-pod strategy was the inspiration for what may be the most memorable campaign ad of 2012. Called "Twins," it features middle-age Montana natives and twins Linda and Marsha Frey citing the similarities between Mr. Tester and Mr. Obama.
"Jon Tester and Barack Obama: They may not be twins, but they might as well be," chime the identically dressed sisters, teacups in hand.
Even so, the Senate race remains a tossup, with Mr. Rehberg leading by a hair in most polls. Fortunately for Mr. Tester, Montanans aren't sticklers for party loyalty: The state boasts a Democratic governor and senior senator in Brian Schweitzer and Max Baucus, but in 2010 elected an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature.
"That suggests that Montanans are able to make distinctions. They're not going to vote the party line up and down the ticket," said David Parker, who's writing a book on the Senate race tentatively entitled "Battle for the Big Sky." "On the one hand, we look like a red state in some respects, but on the other hand, there's more to the story."
Montana's political history includes a pro-labor populist streak and a divide between the eastern part of the state, with its reliance on the oil and gas industries, and the western part, with its emphasis on conservation and tourism.
The combination of a tight Senate race, a small population and inexpensive media markets has made Montana a magnet for outside political advertising. Groups unaffiliated with the campaigns have spent about $12 million on ads, or more than the two candidates combined, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Anti-Rehberg ads posted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee say the congressman "is out for himself, not us," while spots by the Karl Rove-run conservative Crossroads GPS assert that after six years, "Jon Tester's gone Washington."
Deciding which candidate is the most authentic Montanan could require a DNA test, given the candidates' deep roots in the state. The 56-year-old Mr. Tester is a farmer and third-generation Montanan, while Mr. Rehberg, 57, is a rancher who can trace his family's state ties back five generations.
Mr. Tester has responded to the charge that he's too pro-Obama by emphasizing his own independent streak. In Monday's debate at Montana State University at Billings, he stressed his work in favor of delisting the Canadian gray wolf as a protected endangered species and support for the Keystone XL pipeline, both of which put him at odds with large segments of his party.
"The point is, Congressman, you're running against me," said Mr. Tester told Mr. Rehberg at one point. "He can try to morph me into Barack Obama because that's who he wants to run against, but look at the record."
Countered Mr. Rehberg, "I don't need to morph you into Barack Obama. You did it to yourself."
Mr. Tester, who defeated GOP Sen. Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes in 2006, has gone on the attack by pointing to his 2012 opponent's personal fortune. In addition to his ranch, Mr. Rehberg owns a real-estate development business and was listed by the CRP as the 25th richest member of Congress.
"It's not the multimillionaires like yourself that create the jobs. It's the working families out there that create the manufacturing," said Mr. Tester at the debate. "The fact is the folks that are making millions and millions and millions of dollars ought to be contributing to the coffers."
Both candidates are fighting for the all-important agriculture vote. Mr. Tester has blamed House Republicans like Mr. Rehberg for failing to pass an extension of the economically vital federal farm bill, while the congressman has highlighted his support for eliminating the inheritance tax, a critical issue for farmers.
"Tester's saying, 'Rehberg's a millionaire, he doesn't get you,' and Rehberg's saying, 'Tester may look like a farmer, but he's not voting the way you would,'" said Mr. Parker, an associate professor at Montana State University at Bozeman.
Oddly enough, Mr. Tester's status as the incumbent is almost a non-factor. This is only his second bid for statewide office, while Mr. Rehberg, the former lieutenant governor and a six-term congressman in a state with one district, has run statewide nine times.
"They're both equally well known," said Mr. Parker. "Probably most Montanans have met them at least once."
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