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Burns, Schweitzer: In tight race, things get ugly

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Burns, Schweitzer: In tight race, things get ugly
Everyone had their own reasons for attending the watershed education class at Greenough Park on Sunday, and for 3-year-old Soren Schonbachler, the art portion appeared to be his favorite. Here, Schonbachler is working on his rendition of a mayfly.
Photo by TIM THOMPSON/Missoulian

Race for Senate has become one of nation's most hostile

HELENA - Conrad Burns and Brian Schweitzer are so at odds, they can't even agree whether they once had a beer together.

Schweitzer, the Democrat farmer from Whitefish, recalls a day in 1992 when Burns stopped by the Schweitzer family ranch. A local farmer who knew both men was driving Burns around the Flathead Valley and introduced him to Schweitzer. Schweitzer says he gave the senator a can of Schmidt beer while they chatted on his deck. He has several photos of the visit, including a couple of his three children gathered around Burns.

But Burns said the meeting never happened. Or if it did, he doesn't remember it. And this from the man who seems to recall the names and faces of everyone he's ever met.

"I have never been to his house in my life," Burns said in a telephone interview last week. "(Schweitzer) makes up everything."

Burns softened his stance a little, adding, "I can't ever remember being to his house."

This is what the contest for U.S. Senate has come to as the race narrows into its final days. The battle has become so antagonistic that the two men are fairly openly contemptuous of one another.

That's not terribly shocking, considering the outcome is a tossup and the stakes are control of a U.S. Senate seat, said Craig Wilson, head of the political science department at Montana State University-Billings. The most recent polls show Burns and Schweitzer in a statistical dead heat and it's anyone's guess as to how Tuesday will end.

"I would be surprised if they were even on semi-good terms at this point," said Wilson.

Even the candidates admit it's been a nasty race. Burns, 65, a former Billings broadcaster, and Schweitzer, 45, a farmer, each say his opponent is to blame for the negative tone of the campaign.

"It's so negative, it's unbelievable," said Burns. "We're not building a state; we're tearing it down."

Said Schweitzer: "It's the ugliest race in America."

The contest has attracted national attention. It's a key race in a year when Democrats believe they have a chance of regaining control of the U.S. Senate.

It's also attracted scads of national money and advertising from third-party groups talking about the issues and national political parties. So far, the general election campaign has seen at least $2.5 million in soft money. That's in addition to the total of nearly $7 million combined raised by the candidates - $2 million by Schweitzer and $5 million by Burns.

Wilson said that when the totals are tallied up, soft money may outweigh the actual campaign spending in this race.

The mudslinging has included charges and countercharges from both sides. Schweitzer and some newspaper editorials in Montana have accused Burns of lying about the Democrat's stand on prescription drugs and about his relationship with the defendant in a pesticide smuggling case. Neither charge from Burns has panned out.

Burns, by turn, says Schweitzer has repeatedly distorted his Senate record. He points to what he says are inaccuracies made about his votes on Social Security and other federal programs. He also says Schweitzer has twisted his words.

When Brian Schweitzer entered the Senate race in March 1999, he was a relative unknown mounting a challenge against Burns, the two-term popular incumbent. Over the ensuing months, he chipped away at Burns' lead and made his name taking senior citizens to Canada and Mexico to purchase cheaper prescription drugs.

Early on, Burns was forced to defend himself against Schweitzer's criticisms. He acknowledged that even he was surprised that Schweitzer made such a splash on the prescription drug cost issue. And he blames much of his troubles on outside-party ads this spring attacking his support of legislation to limit liability of asbestos companies. He later dropped his name from that bill.

"He's only had one issue, and that's prescription drugs," Burns said of Schweitzer.

Schweitzer's greatest criticism of Burns is that the senator has become too comfortable in Washington, D.C., and has lost touch with Montana issues. Burns won his first Senate election in 1988 with a similar message. He defeated longtime incumbent Democrat John Melcher and vowed he would only serve two terms in the Senate.

That term limit pledge has rankled Schweitzer.

He said he got it in person from Burns while the two men visited on his porch in 1992. Burns has said he changed his mind about term limits, but doesn't remember ever giving Schweitzer a personal promise.

Despite all the discord, both men have a remarkably upbeat attitude about the election this week. Each man says he expects to win.

"I like my position right now," Burns said in a phone interview from his bus tour of the state last week. "I'm very optimistic about this election."

Burns noted large crowds showing up for Republican events around Montana, saying, "There's a lot of energy and the intensity is just great."

Schweitzer is feeling the same way as he traverses the state in the final days of the campaign. When asked what his strategy is to oust Burns, he said he's simply trying to talk with as many voters as possible.

"I'm shaking hands with everybody I can get my hands on between now and then," said Schweitzer. "This election is going to be won or lost by a very narrow margin."

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