HELENA – Republican John McCain won Montana in a close battle with Barack Obama on a night when the Democrat coasted to victory nationally.
In Montana, with 85 percent of precincts reporting, McCain was leading 51 percent to Obama’s 46 percent. Third-party candidate Ron Paul was drawing 2 percent of the vote.
The state has only voted Democratic two times since 1948, and McCain relied on that tradition during the campaign.
Obama tried to capture the state — visiting five times, opening 19 campaign offices, recruiting thousands of volunteers and airing several TV ads.
Obama came closer than other Democrat in recent years. President Bush won the state by about 20 points in both 2000 and 2004.
“Barack Obama has received the greatest percentage of Montana’s presidential vote of any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964,” said Montana Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O’Brien.
The Democrats said Obama’s large organization helped them in down-ticket races and to build up the state party.
Republicans took solace that they were able to hold the state for McCain, despite the millions Obama spent in Montana. McCain never visited the state, and largely relied on state Republicans to share his message.
“In a night when Montana Democrats should have run the table, they just didn’t do it,” said GOP Chairman Erik Iverson. “It was a David vs. Goliath thing, and we were able to beat back the brunt of it.”
The close race in Montana highlighted sizable gains made by state Democrats in recent years, said University of Montana political scientist Robert Saldin.
“It’s surprising that the Democrats are doing as well as they are,” he said. “It’s a testament to how quickly things can change.”
The last time a Democrat won was 1992, when Bill Clinton received a boost from Ross Perot. Perot helped siphon some of the Republican vote, and political observers had said Paul was a possible spoiler this year.
In Montana, the McCain campaign received help from such groups as the National Rifle Association, which called Obama “a poster child of the extremist, elitist gun control movement.” The Republican National Committee also aired TV ads questioning Obama’s readiness to be president.
In his bid for Montana, Obama seized on Western issues and developed nuanced platforms for farm, wildfire and natural resource policy. He sought to neutralize the gun issue by pledging his support for the Second Amendment.
McCain’s military credentials and support for the war convinced some voters, including Rich Naylor of Billings, who said the country needed to keep troops in Iraq.
“We’re ready for them to come home (but) they need to be there,” the 34-year-old said.
Meanwhile, some voters were wary of another Republican president.
“I feel that John McCain will carry on the policies of the Republican administration,” said Rita Lasko, 59, of Helena, who voted for Obama.
Late Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., congratulated Obama on winning the presidency.
“I’m pretty excited about the opportunities of working with an Obama administration,” said Rehberg, who was re-elected to his fifth term Tuesday. “My job will be to put Montana’s foot forward and help them understand the difference between Chicago and Jordan, Montana, to understand there’s a difference between rural education and urban education, rural health care and urban health care.”
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