Along a stretch of Highway 93, signs supporting former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul almost outnumber those of the party’s presidential nominee, John McCain.
It’s been months since Paul officially left the race, and yet a series of circumstances has the Texas congressman right in the middle of the presidential race in Montana. Political observers say Paul, on the ballot as a third-party candidate, will likely draw some votes away from McCain.
And if the race is close, Paul could be the difference.
“Ron Paul is the wild card,” said David Hart, who oversaw Paul’s campaign in Montana during the primary. “A lot of people are not happy with that.”
In parts of western Montana, Paul attracts independent-minded voters who are drawn to a libertarian message. Only in Montana does Paul appear on the ballot as a Constitution Party candidate.
“People are just fed up with the mainstream parties,” said John Stokes, owner of Z-600 AM radio station in Kalispell. “Folks see this country is on a downward slope, and not adhering to the Constitution.”
Stokes has erected a large “Ron Paul Revolution” sign outside the station and uses his talk show to promote Paul. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Paul gets 8 to 10 percent of the vote in Montana on Nov. 4.
None of this would have been possible without Paul’s supporters, who put his name forward as the Constitution Party of Montana candidate. Paul later asked the secretary of state’s office to remove his name from the ballot, but state officials said they couldn’t.
Paul has not been campaigning in the state and has even asked supporters to write in Chuck Baldwin, the national Constitution Party candidate. Paul did not respond to requests for an interview.
During the GOP primary, some of Paul’s strongest support came in Montana. He received about a quarter of the vote in the state’s June primary — even after it was clear McCain was the party’s presumptive nominee.
Now he could play spoiler to McCain, whose lead in the polls in Montana has diminished. A recent MSU-Billings poll had the presidential race within the margin of error, with Paul drawing 4 percent.
Democrat Barack Obama has been sinking money and resources into Montana in attempt to turn the traditionally red state blue. McCain has largely ignored the state, although the Republican National Committee will begin independently airing ads in Montana this week.
“Absolutely he (Paul) will pull some votes from McCain,” said MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson. “It potentially could make it competitive.”
Gov. Brian Schweitzer agrees. The Democrat is supporting Obama and believes Paul could help Obama carry a state that has backed the Republican presidential candidate all but two times since 1948. The last time a Democrat won Montana was in 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot siphoned some votes from Republican George H.W. Bush.
“That’s why they are tied,” Schweitzer said, referring to Paul’s popularity in Montana.
Schweitzer said those who vote on the gun issue will have trouble backing either Obama or McCain. The Montana Shootings Sports Association has told members that a principled voter should choose Paul over McCain.
The McCain campaign has brushed aside worries about Paul, insisting the race is between McCain and Obama.
Hart, who worked for Paul during the primary, said plenty of people in Flathead County will still vote for Paul. While many Paul supporters have said they will vote for McCain, others want to choose “principle over party,” Hart said.
Hart still receives requests for yard signs, and he often obliges by handing out leftovers from Paul’s primary campaign. Hart, who is also getting more involved in the local Republican Party, understands there could be some hurt feelings if Paul steals some votes from McCain.
“If Obama were to carry Montana, they are going to point a finger at me,” he said. “But the reality is they should be looking in the mirror.”
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