HELENA – When Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama take center stage this weekend in Montana, political observers will be watching how cozy the state’s elected leaders are with the presidential candidates.
National Democrats have always been a tricky issue for Montana Democrats, who maintain their independence on key issues such as gun control and have worked to carve out their own distinct image.
Could all the attention that comes with visits by Clinton and Obama hurt the state party? It’s a question that lingers behind the hoopla surrounding the rare events set for this weekend in Butte and Missoula.
Montana Republicans certainly believe the high-profile visits will negatively affect state Democrats, while acknowledging it will help the opposition organize and raise money. Democrats, however, say the excitement will help far more than it hurts.
There’s a little truth to both sides, according to Craig Wilson, a political science professor at MSU-Billings.
“I’m not sure that any of them running for re-election, the governor for instance, wants to have their picture taken with either (presidential) candidate,” Wilson said. “On the other hand, when you get ex-presidents coming in, and the top two candidates coming in, well, I can’t remember a time that has ever happened.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat up for re-election, said he doesn’t believe Clinton and Obama will affect state candidates in November because, after Montana’s June 3 presidential primary, the candidates will be “about as scarce as a mountain lion in a Hilton.”
And the governor said state Democrats will not be affected any more than state Republicans, given their nominee, Sen. John McCain, doesn’t represent Montana well.
Schweitzer pointed to McCain’s “C” grade with the National Rifle Association (without mentioning the “F” grades of Clinton and Obama.) In comparison, Schweitzer received an “A-,” while other top Democrats — Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus — received an “A” and “B,” respectively.
“I think having Montanans get an opportunity to see national Democratic leaders and compare them to McCain is going to be good for Democrats in Montana,” Schweitzer said. “When you compare their positions to McCain’s, they are about the same place.”
But Wilson, and of course Montana Republicans, believe McCain is the easy pick at this point to carry the state in November.
There was a time, back in 2000 when Schweitzer tried to run for the U.S. Senate, when he said he liked McCain above other presidential candidates. Schweitzer doesn’t say that anymore.
The governor has also been mum on whether he will support Clinton or Obama. As governor, Schweitzer has a key superdelegate vote at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Schweitzer said he doesn’t need to hear any more from Obama or Clinton to make up his mind. The governor said he wants to see who Montanans pick in the June primary before he makes a decision.
Tester and Baucus have been equally shy about wading into candidate endorsements. When Baucus was asked earlier this year how he would make his decision, he simply said “carefully.”
The chairman of the state Republican Party said he is betting top state Democrats will not be onstage with Clinton or Obama at Saturday night’s Metcalf-Mansfield dinner in Butte. After all, the Republicans would love to use any photo opportunities as ammunition in their campaign ads.
Montana GOP Chairman Erik Iverson said the Bill Clinton era was horrible for state Democrats, noting it was a time when they routinely lost ground in state elections. Iverson said Democrats have since, somewhat successfully, re-branded themselves as something different from the national party.
“All of that work over the past decade could be undone in one day, when the television images are an adoring, fawning stadium full of Democrats cheering for two senators who could never get elected in Montana,” Iverson said. “We are fully willing to step back and let them inflict damage on themselves politically.”
Wilson, the political scientist, noted both Schweitzer and Baucus are solid favorites to win re-election.
“In another year, if you had really tight contests, it might be unhelpful to get the national Democrats out here,” Wilson said. “But by appearing with these candidates now, I don’t think either one of these guys is going to cause irreparable damage.”
Democrats say the Clinton and Obama visits are creating unprecedented interest in the state party. Thousands will see the speeches, and the party expects to raise $200,000 at the Saturday dinner. Along the way, new voters and volunteers will be added to the ranks.
Matt Singer, a liberal blogger in Montana and active Democrat, said he thinks state candidates who need to distance themselves from Clinton and Obama will be able to do so before the elections. And if they can’t, he still doesn’t think there will be much damage.
“After all, I think they are both more popular than George W. Bush,” Singer said.
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