- Associated Press - Friday, January 24, 2020

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte is playing up his close ties to President Donald Trump as he tries to squash questions raised by his Republican primary opponents about his ability to reclaim Montana’s governor’s seat.

In the contest’s first debate to feature all the candidates, Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski at times paired up against the state’s lone congressman, who has a huge lead in campaign cash.

They made thinly-veiled references Thursday night to Gianforte’s 2017 assault of a reporter and questioned whether he has sufficient appeal within the GOP after losing a bid for governor in 2016.

But Gianforte never struck back. He drew parallels between his experience building a large technology company in Bozeman and Trump’s business background, and shared anecdotes of visits to the White House meant to illustrate their ties. The impeachment trial underway in Washington was largely ignored.

“Who do you trust to leverage his relationship with Donald Trump to make sure we have better outcomes for Montana?” Gianforte asked. “We’ve seen what President Trump has done for our national economy. The same thing needs to happen in the state.”

The primary is June 2.

Term limits prevent Gov. Steve Bullock from seeking re-election. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, businesswoman Whitney Williams and House Minority Leader Casey Schreiner are seeking the Democratic nomination.

Fox suggested Gianforte would best serve the party by not abandoning his House seat, and noted he received some 96,000 more votes during the 2016 election than Gianforte, a who lost a bid for governor that year.

Olszewski evoked Gianforte’s assault on a reporter the day before he was elected to the U.S. House in a 2017 special election. Olszewski said he wasn’t going to be “body-slammed out of this race” and said rumors that he might drop out were “lies” and “backstabbing.”

The three candidates largely agreed on many of the central issues raised by moderators, including reining in state spending, lifting barriers to energy development and reducing tax burdens.

They sought instead to draw distinctions based on their ability to get elected and track record: Fox pointed to his years of public service, Gianforte touted his corporate credentials and Olszewski offered up a blend of legislative know-how and the experience he’s gained as a surgeon in private practice.

Democrats have occupied the governor’s mansion in Helena since 2005, a sore point for Republicans who hold almost every other statewide seat.

“We must pick the right candidate to get through the primary to actually win the governor’s election,” Fox said. “We need … not just a conservative Republican as I’ve proven myself, but somebody who has a proven record of uniting people.”

Fox, who grew up in Hardin and is finishing up his second term as attorney general, cast himself as the candidate with the most statewide appeal.

He pointed to a range of issues he’s been active on while in office - including litigation challenging Washington state’s resistance to new ports that would ship Montana coal, curbing Medicaid fraud and pursuing sex traffickers.

Gianforte said his years building up the Bozeman-based company Right Now Technologies, which was later sold to Oracle, taught him the importance of letting private industry drive innovation.

He promised to cut state spending and give Montanans a tax break if elected - a proposal that Fox appeared to reference when he warned against “pandering” by candidates who promise across the board cuts.

“It’s not about who we are or what we’re going to promise. It’s about why we want to be governor,” said Olszewski, an orthopedic surgeon and Air Force veteran from Kalispell. “As a doctor, I’m frustrated by being burdened by regulations that force me to focus more on the regulations than you.”

With the impeachment trial now underway seeming to harden support for Trump, that could play to Gianforte’s advantage given that he’s got a personal relationship with the president while his opponents do not, said University of Montana political analyst Robert Saldin.

But Saldin added that Fox’s claims to be more electable in the general election could resonate with party leaders eager to end the Democratic lock on the governor’s seat that began with the 2004 election of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

“If you’re Fox, there’s a good argument that Gianforte has always under-performed. In 2016, he was the only Republican to lose in Montana” in a statewide election, he said. “If the main thing that matters to you is who is the most Trump-y guy out there, then Gianforte is going to win that every time.”

While Olszewski finished fourth in the 2018 U.S. Senate primary, Saldin said the lawmaker enjoys strong support in northwest Montana and among his fellow legislators in Helena.

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