HELENA – The campaign of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain says it is sticking with former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns as its state chairman, following his comments last week that McCain was not his first choice.
Earlier Thursday, Montana GOP officials had said Burns was being replaced as the campaign’s speaker at the state party convention this week in Missoula.
Later, the McCain campaign said Burns was not being replaced and would be speaking in addition to retired Navy Capt. Rod Knutson, a Thompson Falls man who was a prisoner of war during Vietnam and who had spent time at the same POW camp as McCain.
“He is the chairman of our state campaign,” McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky said of Burns.
Erik Iverson, chair of the state GOP, said party officials at first believed Burns was being replaced by Knutson. That is why Burns’ evening time slot was given away, and Knutson was booked for a noon speech, Iverson said.
“We thought they had wanted Rod to be their campaign person (at the convention),” Iverson said. “We had assumed incorrectly they just wanted Rod to speak for the whole (allotted) time.”
Iverson said they were later informed the McCain campaign still wanted Burns to speak on behalf of the candidate.
Burns, known to speak his mind, told Idaho State Republican Convention delegates last week: “I’m sitting here campaigning for John McCain. He wasn’t my first choice, but he is now.”
Burns was seen as yet another example of Republicans who are begrudgingly backing McCain despite questioning his conservative credentials.
Burns did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The McCain campaign hasn’t had an easy time of it in Montana.
Burns was brought in as chairman at the last minute when the campaign realized just before the February Super Tuesday caucus that its original chairman was unpopular with party insiders.
The campaign quickly ushered out Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, derided by his party for running on the same ticket with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Some Republicans at the time criticized the McCain campaign for failing to research the state.
Burns was brought in less than a week before the party’s caucus. Even though Burns remains popular with party insiders, McCain was only able to muster a disappointing third place finish in the state’s caucus.
And observers found Burns to be a curious choice considering that his alleged ties to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal played a key role in his 2006 loss to Democrat Jon Tester — even though Burns was never charged with any wrongdoing. McCain, meanwhile, has touted his role in exposing the scandal.
McCain finished behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in the caucus. Paul is scheduled to speak Friday night at the convention.
McCain is still projected by most observers to do well in Montana this November, in part because of his popularity with key independent voters and his party’s traditional stranglehold on the state’s presidential electoral votes.
But Democrat Barack Obama has promised to wage a general election campaign in the state, a rarity for a presidential campaign. The Obama campaign says it believes Montana is competitive.
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