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HELENA - Montanans have opened their wallets and purses to 2008 presidential candidates to the tune of $256,860 - already.

That's a tiny fraction of the $416.2 million that Americans from across the country have donated to various presidential hopefuls through Sept. 30, the close of the latest reporting period, the Federal Election Commission said.

So far, Montanans have ponied up $149,161 to Democrats, or 58 percent of the total amount given. And they've written checks totaling $107,700 to Republicans, or 42 percent of the total. The party sums don't add up because of rounding.

We're pikers compared to Idaho residents, who have coughed up $848,374, and Wyomingites, who have shelled out $411,249 to presidential candidates.

But Montanans are dropping more bucks on presidential candidates than South Dakotans, who gave $191,603, and North Dakotans, who forked over a mere $57,613.

Perhaps surprisingly, two of the highest ranked candidates in national polls, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, trail badly in the money race in Montana.

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., leads the chase here, collecting $66,114 so far, or slightly more than one out of every four dollars given. Trial lawyers around the state make up the bulk of the donors to Edwards, one of their own. Among his donors are former Supreme Court Justice Terry Trieweiler of Whitefish, who gave $500, and former state Sen. Mike Wheat, D-Bozeman, a candidate for attorney general, who also donated $500.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has raised the next most money in Montana with $45,772. His list contains no current or former state elected officials, but includes Barbara Skelton of Billings, who ran for lieutenant governor in 1988 on the ticket headed by former Gov. Thomas L. Judge, giving $550. Businessman Mike Gustafson, also of Billings and owner of Wesco Resources, donated $500.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney topped the Republican fundraising in Montana, with $32,010. Romney donors include former state Sen. Delwyn Gage, formerly of Cut Bank and now of Bigfork, who put in $300. Dirk Visser, president and chief executive officer of Allegiance Benefit Plan Management of Missoula, donated $1,000.

Ranking fourth in Montana donations is Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, with $23,725. Former state Rep. Bob Davies, R-Bozeman, who lost a 1982 congressional bid, gave $400. The Paul campaign has said Montana ranks second in the country, behind New Hampshire, in per-capita donations to his presidential campaign.

In fifth place is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with $19,014 collected from Montanans. His donors include state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, who gave $1,000, and ex-Rep. Jack Sands, R-Billings, a former attorney general candidate, who donated $242.

Although Clinton tops the presidential fundraising nationally with $89 million, she's reeled in only $12,825 in Montana to rank sixth among the candidates. Sarah Elliott, communications director for Gov. Brian Schweitzer, donated $1,350, and state Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, gave $250.

Next was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, who collected $9,700. Billings real estate developer Steve Corning donated $1,000 of that total.

In eighth place was late entrant Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, who pulled in $9,700. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, was in ninth place with $7,510, followed by Rep. Thomas Tancredo, R-Colo., with $6,200.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, ranks 11th in money from Montana with $6,120. Bozeman businessman Steve Daines, who considered running for governor on the Republican ticket but decided against it, and his wife, Cindy, each kicked in $2,300.

Giuliani is lodged in 12th place in Montana fundraising, bringing in only $5,800 here.

Bringing up the rear are: Sen. Thomas Dodd, D-Conn., $4,600; Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who has dropped out of the race, $3,381; former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, $1,090; former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican, $1,000; and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., $750.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., hasn't raised any money in Montana.

You can check out the FEC Web site and can search for donors by ZIP code. It's at http://www.fec.gov/DisclosureSearch/mapApp.do.

Look for the Montana fundraising totals of the front-running presidential candidates to rise in the coming months, especially as the two parties start whittling the field.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Missoulian State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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