- Associated Press - Monday, October 20, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amanda Curtis cast Republican Rep. Steve Daines as a conservative ideologue out of step with Montana voters during their first face-to-face meeting Monday.

With Election Day just two weeks away, Curtis sought to capitalize on the debate at Montana State University Billings by calling attention to what she characterized as her opponent’s “extreme” voting record, including a vote for last year’s partial government shutdown.

“He’s so out of touch with the way the rest of us live,” said Curtis, a state legislator and math teacher from Butte. She called Daines “the most extreme congressman our state has ever had, who has voted to turn Medicare into a voucher system and to sell off our public lands.”

But Daines largely steered clear of the frequent jabs other than to reject many of them as false. The former technology executive from Bozeman instead stuck closely to his message of more jobs and less government. He also repeatedly invoked President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act as an example of bureaucratic excess.

“We need somebody who will stand up for Montana. Not somebody that will stand up for Obama,” Daines said.

As voters already have been mailing in ballots, Curtis was looking for a breakthrough to make up for her late entry into the race and Daines’ nearly 8-to-1 advantage in campaign contributions. She was selected as the Democrats’ replacement nominee in August, when Sen. John Walsh dropped out of the race.

Curtis offered a string of populist-themed promises to protect Medicare, seek equal pay for women and oppose corporate influences in Washington, D.C.

All of it appeared aimed at denting Daines’ front-runner status.

“I will work with anyone who is willing to come up with solutions that help all sectors of the economy, not just the biggest corporations and the wealthiest individuals,” she said.

Daines in turn questioned the depth of Curtis’ support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and highlighted his work in the private sector as providing the kind of real-world experience needed to make a difference in Congress. He said low marks for Curtis from the National Rifle Association illustrated her differences with the majority of voters in the state.

“We need D.C. to look more like Montana. We don’t want Montana to look more like Washington, D.C.,” Daines said.

A second - and last - debate between Daines and Curtis is scheduled for Tuesday in Sidney.

Daines has raised $4.3 million and spent more than $3.2 million since he entered the race last year. He’s seeking to take for the Republican Party a Senate seat that Democrats have held for more than a century.

Walsh was appointed to the post earlier this year fill a vacancy created when former Sen. Max Baucus became U.S. ambassador to China. But the former lieutenant governor and Montana National Guard commander abandoned his campaign in August after The New York Times revealed he plagiarized a paper while attending the U.S. Army War College in 2007.

Since then, Curtis has raised $558,000 and spent just $50,466 through Sept. 30. She posted her first and perhaps only television advertisement last week. That compares with a deluge of Daines ads that have been airing for months.

Libertarian candidate Roger Roots of Livingston was not invited to Monday’s event.

He said in a telephone interview that Republicans and Democrats alike were unwilling to address the problems of an oversized federal government, and that his absence from the debate denied voters a chance to see a true contrast on the issues.

“It’s a controlled system,” he said. “I wonder how the American people are going to overcome this tyrannical government.”

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