HELENA – Only two Democratic presidential candidates have carried Montana since 1948, but Barack Obama is betting he can do it in November.
With just three electoral votes and a strong reputation as a red state, Montana rarely sees presidential candidates in the summer before a general election. Republicans usually take the state for granted, while Democrats rarely contest it.
But Obama has been spending a sizable amount of time and money on Montana, hiring a state director and staff while running TV ads detailing his background and qualifications. Montana is among fewer than 20 states the campaign is targeting early.
“Montana is considered one of the very competitive states,” Obama spokesman Caleb Weaver said.
Obama’s even spending Fourth of July in Montana, attending a parade and picnic in Butte. The campaign hopes to build on the excitement surrounding Obama’s primary win last month.
“(Obama) is the kind of candidate that has shown he can run competitively in these types of states because of his ability to attract new people to the process,” Weaver said. “Sen. Obama is an independent figure. He is very attractive to the independent-minded spirit of Montanans.”
Democrats have made gains in the state in recent years, electing a populist as governor and ousting a longtime Republican U.S. senator. But in 2004, even when Gov. Brian Schweitzer won, Democrat John Kerry lost Montana by 20 percentage points.
Montana has a long tradition of voting Republican in presidential elections — Al Gore also lost by about 20 points. Bob Dole defeated Bill Clinton in 1996. Clinton did win four year earlier — but only with about a third of the vote after Ross Perot split the conservative vote.
The last Democrat to win the state without the help of a spoiler was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, when he trounced Barry Goldwater — who, like McCain, hailed from Arizona. But unlike McCain, Goldwater was marginalized as extreme.
Before that, the last Democrat to win Montana was Harry Truman in 1948.
“It’s unprecedented for a Democrat to come in and say that Montana is one of the 15 states we can win,” said political scientist Craig Wilson, a longtime observer of Montana politics.
No other Democratic presidential candidate in memory has committed to Montana like Obama has this election cycle. His campaign promises “significant” investment in the state. And Democrats are buoyed by the possibility of a presidential campaign helping them with party building and get-out-the-vote efforts this fall.
McCain, on the other hand, has no staff in the state and has yet to visit Montana this election year.
Yet, the Republican still holds a natural advantage given the state’s conservative bent, Wilson said.
“In my book, McCain still has to be the favorite in Montana,” Wilson said. “Yes, Obama could win it. It just seems like a longshot.”
The McCain campaign, meanwhile, remains confident the Arizona senator will win Montana in November.
“The more often Barack Obama travels to Montana, the more voters will be reminded of why they disagree with him on the issues they care about most,” said McCain spokesman Tom Steward.
Gun rights remain a key issue in Montana — which could be a problem for Obama in the fall. Observers say Montanans treat guns as a political litmus test, answer correctly and they will look no further. Answer wrong and you have no chance. Democrats hope Obama can come up with the correct answer.
“It is a big deal out here,” said state Rep. Dan Villa of Anaconda. “His mission over the next few months is to convince people he doesn’t want their guns, he doesn’t want more of their money. He needs to convince rural Montana we just want to leave you be.”
Obama’s trip to Butte takes him to a unique Montana mining town that is also the state’s Democratic, union stronghold. It is one of a few places in Montana where Obama lost to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state’s June 3 primary.
“In Butte and Anaconda we have a real deep blue collar streak,” said Villa, who represents part of the area. “I think we saw that play out in the primary when Clinton won. But we are Democrats and will rally around him.”
Democrats in the state were flattered when both Obama and Clinton visited the state during the primary — and are stunned it will continue through the general election.
“There will be busloads of us going over to Butte,” Villa said. “It’s a pretty exciting time.”
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