5 Political Minutes

By Beacon Staff

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney landed in Helena last week to stump at the state GOP convention, and the only thing surprising about that is … well, it’s not that surprising.

At some point, it’s unclear when, the Big Sky state, home to the world’s largest stuffed steer, became politically relevant on a national level. Suited men and women who once offered only curious nods and warily eyed a bolo tie, Ivy Leaguers and New Englanders who once tip-toed around our wily disposition and huckleberry obsession, now frequent our log-cabin-themed airports.

Nonetheless, it was mind-blowing to read that Romney had already named his Montana campaign team in former Gov. Tim Babcock and Secretary of State Brad Johnson. Mind-blowing, because Montana’s presidential primary is 12 months away (we vote second to last, which makes us irrelevant); the presidential election is 17 months away; and, according to realclearpolitics.com, Romney currently sits in fourth place among Republican candidates.

If Romney has visited, other politicos must be on their way or returning for an encore – right? Pres. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made trips to Montana before. So has First Lady Laura Bush and political strategist Karl Rove.

But many of those visits were to stump for issues or other candidates, specifically former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, not to campaign for this country’s highest office.

No, with Romney’s visit, Montana has built on its newfound fame. It’s rugged, sparse and suddenly attractive to those who’ve just begun courting voters.

While beginning to look like a real player on the national political scene despite a pittance of electoral college votes, Montana struggles to counter all the player haters to the east – specifically New Hampshire and Iowa, states which inexplicably believe that voting first in presidential primaries is a God-given right.

Since a bill that would have bumped our presidential primary up to February was shot down by the 2007 Legislature, Montana must become more creative to maintain momentum in luring presidential candidates.

With a Republican majority in the state House, a Democratic governor, a Republican U.S. representative and two Democratic U.S. senators, Montana is already attractively puzzling in its sheer moodiness. Nor does it hurt that voters here outlawed gay marriage and approved medicinal marijuana in the same election. So, maybe, presidential candidates will treat us like a curiosity they must see to believe.

I would love to think Romney is already telling wild stories about us on the campaign trail, explaining to his opponents, “You’ve got to go out there. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s a 3,980-pound stuffed steer in Baker.” But in reality, Romney saw little more of Montana than the inside of a Helena hotel.

Still, maybe Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Hillary Clinton will decide they want to sample our state’s true flavor, and have already ordered their bus drivers north to see one of the world’s largest fresh water springs, Giant, next to the world’s shortest river, Roe, and speak to an independent-minded crowd wearing cowboy hats and hemp beanies – making an insecure New Hampshire and Iowa stamp their feet for some other state snaring a slice of their attention.

Not likely, unless we move our primary up, or invite every presidential candidate to every one of our political conventions. Romney may be our only visitor. Our star will soon fade; five minutes lapse, and then we can argue over whether that’s a good thing.

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