Obama, Clinton to Bask in the Big Sky?

By Kellyn Brown

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, emphasizing good news on a bad night, told supporters in the early goings of Super Tuesday to cheer up. He may have been trounced by his opponents in several states, but things were looking up in Montana.

Montana? Mitt mentioned Montana? It was a desperate attempt to highlight good news; after all, Romney quit the race two days later as Arizona Sen. John McCain solidified his frontrunner status. But Montana’s first GOP caucus did what most party leaders had hoped: made them relevant – something that the state’s Democrats didn’t expect this year. They vote dead last for their presidential preference on June 3 alongside South Dakota.

Now, however, there is a sliver of hope, albeit a gaunt one, that Montana will influence the outcome of the Democratic nominating process.

Following Super Tuesday, where delegates for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama were split almost evenly, the two campaigns began digging in their respective heels for what is expected to be a prolonged, primary campaign. How long it will last depends on which pundit or political flack you listen to.

Some expect the nomination to be wrapped up soon after voters in Texas and Ohio go to the polls on March 4. In fact, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said last week if the contest continued much longer than that he would step in hoping to “make some kind of arrangement.” He worries that a drawn-out contest could fracture the party.

But not everyone believes he will be able to hammer out a deal by then.

Stressing first that Montana’s primary will matter whether the nomination is wrapped up before then, Art Noonan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, is at odds with Dean’s prediction that a candidate is apt to be crowned early. Noonan said the race is so close, and both candidates have expended so much energy, that neither will forfeit until a true favorite emerges.

“If there was one thing I would do away with, it is conventional wisdom,” Noonan said.

He put the likelihood of Obama or Clinton stumping in Montana for its 24 delegates at 40 percent. That percentage – while still somewhat low – is colossal compared to the January odds.

Imagine if the two candidates came away from the May 20 caucuses in Oregon and Kentucky still deadlocked. Suddenly, South Dakota and Montana Democrats – once perceived to be the least relevant – would cast the final votes before the Democratic Convention. If he or she wants to be perceived as having momentum, each contender would then canvas both states for two solid weeks leading up to the final presidential primaries. Since superdelegates – former and currently elected Democrats – may ultimately decide the nomination at the convention, the appearance of surging late could influence some undecided.

Keep in mind, the chances of this bearing out is slim. If it did, though, attention would turn to the Big Sky State for better or worse. A campaign that has already reached fever pitch, with voter turnout smashing records across the country, would have only escalated between now and June.

Predicting the outcome of Montana’s Democratic primary is pointless. Obama has fared well in traditionally red Western states, but many of those were caucuses and attributed to his strong ground operation. Clinton’s strengths are in primaries, where the popular vote trumps all. It’s a crapshoot, a potentially entertaining one that is still unlikely to be vital.

But if it is, expect some high-profile visits.

“It’s very reasonable,” Noonan said. “Look at Obama. He was already in Idaho.”

And Montana, weirdly, may matter even more than the Potato State, and Hawkeye State for that matter.