BOZEMAN, MONT. — Election day was still more than a year off when Sen. Max Baucus recently stopped by the new Boys & Girls Club along a creek outside this fast-growing city in the shadow of southwestern Montana's jagged Bridger Mountains.
But the silver-haired Democrat looked every bit a candidate in a nail-biter as he finger-painted with children at the log-cabin clubhouse and then raced 100 miles down the Missouri River to the state capital to talk up what he was doing for the state in Washington.
Baucus is the longest-serving senator in Montana history. As chairman of the finance committee, he writes the nation's tax laws. He is one of the most popular politicians in the state. And his party, which controls the governor's office, the Legislature and the state's two Senate seats, is on a roll.
Yet, as he prepares to run for a fifth term next year, Baucus is entering treacherous territory. Despite recent gains by Democrats in the Rocky Mountain West, party officials across the region are increasingly anxious that their congressional candidates may get dragged under by Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign.
The New York senator and Democratic front-runner was by a wide margin the most unpopular of 13 potential presidential candidates in Montana, according to a June survey by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Billings Gazette; 61% said they would not consider voting for her, compared with 49% who would not vote for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and 45% who would not vote for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. The most unpopular Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was rejected by 51%.
Recent polls in Colorado, Nevada and Arizona have found similar distaste for Clinton.
"She's carrying huge negatives out here," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Colorado pollster who said Democratic congressional candidates would have to highlight their differences with the national party to be successful next year. "It's that liberal East Coast image that is so hard to sell in the West."
One key advisor to a prominent Democratic congressional candidate, who asked not be to identified discussing tensions within the party, went even further. "It's a disaster for Western Democrats," he said. "It keeps me up at night."
The Clinton campaign said the alarm was unwarranted and expressed confidence that as voters in the West got to know Clinton, they would back her and the party's congressional candidates. "We expect to head a very strong ticket in the West," spokesman Mo Elleithee said.
Republicans, who have lost ground across the Mountain West for two election cycles, have challenges of their own. President Bush and the war in Iraq remain deeply unpopular. The GOP presidential nominee may also be an East Coast politician: former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
And although most states in the region will probably back the Republican presidential candidate, Democrats appear to have the momentum. The party has picked up seats in Congress in four of the last five elections. And it controls governors' mansions in five of the eight states of the inland West; in 2000, it was zero.
"There is a steady march," said Karl Struble, a veteran Democratic strategist who recently opened an office in Arizona to complement his Washington, D.C., headquarters. "My client base is moving west."
Democratic strategists see opportunities in the shifting demographics of the region, where the Latino population is expanding and where major metropolitan areas, particularly in the Southwest, are booming. Both Latinos and city-dwellers lean toward Democrats.
But party leaders and strategists also attribute the recent gains to candidates who connect with Western voters and their values, in part by distinguishing themselves from the national Democratic Party.
Perhaps no one is more of a poster child for that success than Montana's colorful governor, Brian Schweitzer. Three years ago, Schweitzer became the darling of Democratic politicos when he swaggered into office with a dog and a pair of cowboy boots.
Schweitzer, a cattle rancher and the grandson of homesteaders, is no Democrat in name only. He is a proponent of energy conservation and environmental regulation. He favors abortion rights. And while the Bush administration was pushing to expand surveillance powers with the Patriot Act, Schweitzer pardoned 78 Montanans, most of them German immigrants, who had been convicted of sedition during World War I.
He also champions gun rights and coal -- a major Montana export -- positions that reflect clear differences from the Democratic Party's coastal wings.
"There are two kinds of people in Montana," Schweitzer joked in a recent telephone interview. "Those who are for gun control, and those who run for public office."
Across the border in Wyoming -- where voters chose a Democratic governor in 2002 and reelected him by a landslide four years later -- Democratic congressional candidate Gary Trauner offered another caution.