Montana’s Top Politicians Shy From Presidential Picks

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Montana voters who can’t find a favorite presidential candidate are in good company — the state’s top political leaders are also largely undecided.

The governor and the state’s congressional delegation say, like many voters, they’re looking for more information or waiting to see how events unfold in the primary season.

Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Jon Tester, Rep. Denny Rehberg and Gov. Brian Schweitzer know many of the candidates personally, or at least have met them. Despite that inside knowledge, some are having a hard time making a pick.

“I’ve met most of them, but I don’t know them well enough to say, ‘Yeah, this guy is rock solid,'” said Tester, a Democrat.

A day after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s win in New Hampshire, Tester said a robust field could be making it more difficult for people to commit to a candidate.

“With all the media coverage, people have a lot of time to look at these guys and see how they react under pressure,” Tester said. “From what I’ve seen on TV, the people who are leading at this point are talking about change. And that’s an important issue we need to deal with. People see need for domestic and foreign relations change.”

Rehberg, through a spokesman, said he doesn’t currently have plans to endorse anyone in the Republican field.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, said he does not think it’s unusual for governors to remain uncommitted, noting most people — regardless of whether they hold elected office — have yet to make a decision.

“Ask the same question of regular voters, and have they made up their mind? I doubt it,” Schweitzer said.

And he doesn’t think his preference matters much, saying “my opinion with three bucks will get you a cup of coffee.”

Across the country, governors and congressional leaders are roughly split on announcing a preference.

Baucus, a Democrat, would only say that he is excited to see high voter turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire and will “encourage people to get out, vote and express their views.”

“Personally, myself, I am not endorsing anybody. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do so,” Baucus said.

Political scientist Craig Wilson, of Montana State University-Billings, said some elected leaders don’t want to pick too soon because the candidate they select may not be the ultimate winner. And since most expect the field to be mostly settled after the Feb. 5 primaries, it is easy to wait a few more weeks.

“If you go too soon and you pick the loser, and the person who gets the nomination goes on to be president, people remember that stuff,” Wilson said.

Even the rest of the state’s Democratic party leaders, so-called “superdelegates” who will head to the national convention in August, remain free agents.

Ed Tinsley, one of seven such delegates in Montana, said he would like to see the race stay undecided until the convention, something he acknowledges is unlikely.

“Obviously it is probably getting narrowed down between (Barack) Obama and Hillary,” said Tinsley, a Lewis and Clark County commissioner. “It would be fun to have an old time convention.”

Margarett Campbell, a superdelegate who is also a state lawmaker from Poplar, said “this is the toughest I’ve seen it. In the past we just didn’t have so many qualified candidates.”

But another superdelegate who doesn’t hold elected office but serves as chair of the Montana Democratic Party, said he was not voicing a preference because he thinks the state party should stay out of the primary.

“I just don’t know that it is helpful for political parties to weigh in,” Dennis McDonald said.

Further down the list of elected state officeholders, there are endorsements.

For instance, Secretary of State Brad Johnson is chairing Mitt Romney’s efforts in Montana. Johnson said Wednesday he made the pick early because “he is right on more issues for me than any of the others.”

Johnson held a conference call touting what he characterized as Romney’s strong second-place finish in New Hampshire.

And Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger is chairing John McCain’s state campaign — even though Bohlinger, a longtime Republican lawmaker, is again running on the same Democratic ticket as Schweitzer. Bohlinger says he remains a Republican and likes McCain’s principled stands.