BILLINGS – A new poll suggests Gov. Brian Schweitzer holds a sizable lead over Republican challenger Roy Brown, with a 33-point advantage heading into the final weeks of the election.
Schweitzer was picked by 60 percent of likely Montana voters to Brown’s 27 percent, in a survey released Friday by Montana State University-Billings. Libertarian Stan Jones captured 4 percent, and 8 percent were undecided.
The poll’s error margin was plus or minus five percentage points.
MSU-Billings political analyst Craig Wilson said the results indicate Brown, a state senator from Billings, has fallen flat in his attempt to take on Schweitzer with negative ads that depict the governor as a bully.
“At the moment it’s very difficult for (Brown). He’s rolling a rock uphill,” Wilson said.
In other statewide contests, the poll showed Democrats leading Republicans in the races for attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state.
Wilson said those results reflected the “coattail” effect of Schweitzer’s lead and an aggressive voter registration drive by the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. But Wilson also noted up to a quarter of voters polled in those down-ticket races were undecided — meaning the tide could shift before Nov. 4.
The telephone poll of 403 likely Montana voters was conducted Oct. 16-20.
In the governor’s race, Schweitzer has a huge cash advantage over Brown — with $560,000 in the bank versus Brown’s $105,000 as of Oct. 15.
The governor also has enjoyed a high profile after delivering a widely praised speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Brown, a former oil company owner, has had trouble gaining traction on his signature issue: energy production.
The governor, too, touts energy issues. And Schweitzer has taken credit for several recent announcements from companies that plan to expand coal mining in Montana, build new coal plants and erect a transmission line to carry electricity from proposed wind farms.
Schweitzer campaign manager Harper Lawson said the incumbent was “not taking anything for granted.”
“We’ve got 11 days to go, and we’re going to continue campaigning hard to earn every vote,” Lawson said.
Brown spokeswoman Alden Downing dismissed the MSU-Billings poll as “not the most credible.”
“We know we’re gaining ground on the governor, and the desperate attacks he’s launched in the last several weeks indicate that he knows we’re gaining on him too,” Downing said.
In other results:
— Rep. Denny Rehberg is leading Democratic challenger John Driscoll, 59 percent to 25 percent. Driscoll said he would vote for Rehberg after the congressman opposed the $700 billion banking industry bailout. Eleven percent are undecided.
— Democrat Steve Bullock leads Republican Tim Fox 45 percent to 38 percent in the attorney general’s race, with 17 percent undecided.
— Democrat Linda McCulloch leads incumbent Secretary of State Brad Johnson 41 percent to 35 percent, with 21 percent undecided.
— Democrat Monica Lindeen leads Republican Duane Grimes 41 percent to 35 percent in the state auditor’s race, with 24 percent undecided.
— Mike McGrath, the state attorney general, leads Ron Waterman 48 to 16 percent in the race for chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court, with 36 percent undecided. McGrath is prevented by term limits from seeking a third term as attorney general.
— 43 percent of likely voters said they would vote Democrat and 41 percent said Republican for state House races.
— 69 percent support renewing the six mill property tax levy for higher education.
— 73 percent support a ballot initiative to expand children’s health insurance.
Results were not released for two races: state Superintendent of Public Instruction and the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Max Baucus and GOP challenger Robert Kelleher.
Wilson said a flaw in those survey questions invalidated the results.
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