- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana has spent much of this year fighting off a barrage of Democratic efforts to tie him to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal — charges the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee calls gutter politics at its worst.

The three-term lawmaker, who narrowly won re-election six years ago with 51 percent of the vote, denies he was influenced by anyone, but he has been hit hard by a wave of early negative ads bankrolled by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, targeting him as one of the Republican Party’s most vulnerable incumbents.

“We know for a fact that the DSCC has made large money transfers to the Montana Democratic Party and their chairman has confirmed that the DSCC has paid for the ads,” said Brian Nick, the NRSC’s chief spokesman.

Mr. Nick said the DSCC, chaired by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, has “transferred close to $500,000, with nearly $300,000 of that going to TV and radio ads. You can buy a lot of ads for that kind of money in Montana.” The ads ran during the last half of 2005, but they continued to have repercussions this year when they fueled months of free press attention that threw Mr. Burns on the defensive.

Mr. Burns, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the Department of the Interior, has struck back with ads in which he says Abramoff “lied to anybody and everybody” and “ripped off his Indian clients.”

The senator announced in December that he would give away or return $150,000 in donations he received from Abramoff or his lobbying clients, and he did just that earlier this month, with some of the funds returned to tribes or donated to American Indian charities.

Republican leaders, including Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, have visited the state to defend him.

“It’s politics at its worst. It’s the epitome of gutter politics. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been pumped into this state in an effort at character assassination,” Mrs. Dole said last week in a telephone interview from Billings, Mont., where she campaigned with her Senate colleague.

Mr. Burns’ re-election prospects may have further weakened when an article in the April issue of Vanity Fair quoted Abramoff as saying, “Every appropriation we wanted [from Mr. Burns’ subcommittee] we got. Our staffs were as close as they could be. I mean, it’s a little difficult for him to run from that record.”

The political fallout in Montana from that article, as well as other campaign developments, led elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg to move Mr. Burns’ Senate race from “narrow advantage to incumbent party” to the “tossup” column, calling him “more vulnerable.”

“Conrad Burns’ prospects have continued to erode over the last three months,” Mr. Rothenberg told his political newsletter subscribers this month.

Among the dozens of lawmakers who have received campaign contributions from Abramoff, his associates or his many clients who included casino-owning Indian tribes, Mr. Burns ranks as one of the biggest recipients.

“Whenever we have compiled a list of campaign contributions, Senator Burns is always toward the top of the list,” said spokesman Massie Ritsch at the Center for Responsive Politics, a public interest group that has tracked the scandal’s money trail.

“He got money from Abramoff, from Indian tribes Abramoff admitted defrauding, from other Abramoff clients when he was their lobbyist, and from convicted Abramoff associate Tony Rudy,” Mr. Ritsch said, but he stressed “that we don’t have any evidence at this time to suggest that these were not legal contributions.”

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