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Winning the West, Montana style

The Rocky Mountain West will be a key battleground again in 2012. The Senate battle between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg in Montana shows how it could be fought.

February 27, 2011|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times

Announcing his candidacy, Rehberg called Tester a "yes man for Barack Obama," saying he sides with the administration on 97% of votes. He singled out Tester's support for the healthcare bill and 2009 economic stimulus, both of which Rehberg opposed. "It's contrary to what Montanans want," said Rehberg, who helped lead House efforts to cut off funding for the healthcare bill.

Tester defends both. The healthcare legislation was a start toward repairing an out-of-control system, he told radio listeners, and contains "a lot of good stuff." Any problems, he said, can be fixed.

The stimulus bill, he told state lawmakers, "pulled our nation away from the ledge of a catastrophic depression…. The only thing failed about it … was a vote against it."

While supporting Obama on perhaps the two most important initiatives of his administration, Tester diverges from many in his party with his staunch support of gun rights and uncompromising stance on illegal immigration, an independence that plays well at home, if not on the far left. "I represent Montana," he said, dismissing critics.

If "liberal" is an epithet in Montana and much of the West, so too is "extreme." Independents nearly equal Democrats and Republicans in much of the region, and they tend to shun ideologues. That is one reason for November's Senate results in Nevada and Colorado, where Democrats defeated "tea party" loyalists Sharron Angle and Ken Buck.

In Montana, Democrats already have seized on two of Rehberg's recent statements to portray him as being outside the mainstream. They cited his jocular salute — "President Bachmann, where are you?" — when Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite, appeared at a GOP dinner in Helena. And they jumped on his suggestion that a federal judge belongs on the endangered species list for upholding Washington management of the state's gray wolf population; they said the comment was especially insensitive after the killing of a judge in the Tucson shootings.

The Rehberg camp brushed aside the criticism. But strategists said there was a danger for any candidate — whether seeking the White House or running for the Senate — who strays too far from the center.

Westerners "don't want anyone to the extreme left. They don't want anyone too far right," said Katy Atkinson, a GOP strategist in Denver. "They want someone whose first loyalty is to principle, as opposed to party."

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