HELENA - As Montanans go to the polls in Tuesday's primary election, the eyes of the nation and the world will be upon them, for their votes will help decide the Democratic presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
With Obama just 40-some delegates away from sealing the nomination, Montana's usually irrelevant 25 Democratic nominating delegates have become critical - and Tuesday's election results will help determine how many go to Obama.
Yet while the Democratic presidential contest is drawing all the attention, voters have plenty of other contested state races on the ballot.
Republicans will choose their nominee to challenge U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who's up for a sixth consecutive term, and Democrats will choose their opponent for four-term U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
Both parties have spirited nominating contests for state attorney general and Democrats will choose among four candidates running for state superintendent of schools.
Voters also will decide contested Democratic and Republican primaries in dozens of legislative districts across the state, as well as the Democratic primary for the southeastern Montana seat on the Public Service Commission.
Still, the Democratic presidential primary is the one attracting the spotlight - and, probably, the bulk of the voters.
Kevin O'Brien, spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, said Monday the Obama-Clinton clash has supercharged interest in the party and the race, likely leading to a record turnout among Democratic voters.
"The two presidential campaigns have gotten folks energized and excited, and they've also gotten people involved," he said. "I've seen more folks canvassing in a primary than ever before. We hope to tap into that volunteer base."
Montana's presidential primary is getting media attention from around the nation and the world. Reporters from the nation's top newspapers and TV networks have been in the state, and O'Brien said he's been called by broadcast crews from German television and Al-Jazeera, an Arabic news network.
Montana has an open primary, where voters choose on Election Day in which party primary they'll vote. In 2004, the last presidential primary year, 54 percent of voters chose the Republican presidential primary.
This year, Democrats expect a "clear majority" will choose the Democratic presidential primary, O'Brien said.
Election officials also are predicting a turnout of nearly 50 percent of all registered voters, much higher than the usual primary turnout of around 35 percent.
The only independent poll in recent weeks, one sponsored by Lee Newspapers, showed Obama, a senator from Illinois, leading Clinton among likely Democratic primary voters, 52 percent to 35 percent. If Obama wins the Montana Democratic primary, he'll probably pick up nine or 10 of the state's 17 pledged delegates.
Another five Montana Democratic superdelegates, who are state elected and party officials, also could go to Obama if he wins Tuesday's primary election.
A victory in neighboring South Dakota today for Obama could add another 10 or so delegates, and CNN reported Monday that "most" of the 17 U.S. senators who are superdelegates will be endorsing Obama this week, likely giving him the nomination - if he wins in Montana and South Dakota.
Obama will be in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday night, site of the Republican National Convention in September. National news reports say he's chosen St. Paul to symbolize the fight he'll be taking to the Republicans this fall, against their presumptive nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Clinton, a senator from New York, will be in New York City.
Both presidential campaigns said they plan extensive get-out-the-vote efforts in Montana, making phone calls and knocking on doors for one last push.
Obama campaign spokesman Matt Chandler said it has 50 staffers and "thousands" of volunteers working in the state, while the Clinton campaign said it has "hundreds" of people.
"Right now, it's a fight for every last pledged delegate," Chandler said. "Then it becomes a question of superdelegates."
The Democratic presidential battle is overshadowing the fact that Montana Republicans will vote in a presidential primary as well, choosing between McCain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
McCain already has the nomination wrapped up, but the Montana result will influence how Montana delegates vote at the Republican National Convention this fall, said Erik Iverson, chairman of the state Republican Party.
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the Montana Republican Party caucus in February, but released his 25 delegates here after he dropped out of the race. Delegates for McCain or Paul will be chosen at the state party's convention in Missoula this month, influenced by Tuesday's vote, Iverson said.
Iverson said the Democratic primary will draw the most voters, but that it's important for Republicans to go to the polls, too, to choose their nominees in the U.S. Senate and attorney general race, among others.
The statewide primary races in Montana today are:
- Governor: Bill Fischer of Lakeside and Don Pogreba of Helena are challenging Gov. Brian Schweitzer in the Democratic primary. State Sen. Roy Brown of Billings and Larry H. Steele of Great Falls are vying for the GOP bid.
- U.S. Senate: Five Republicans are competing to take on Baucus, including Kirk Bushman, a facilities designer from Billings; attorney Bob Kelleher from Butte; state Rep. Michael Lange of Billings; accountant Patty Lovaas of Missoula; and rancher/truck driver Anton Pearson of St. Regis.
- U.S. House: Three Democrats are vying to take on Rehberg, including farmer Bob Candee of Richey, former Public Service Commissioner John Driscoll of Helena, and Helena attorney Jim Hunt.
- Attorney general: Steve Bullock of Helena, John Parker of Great Falls and Mike Wheat of Bozeman are competing in the Democratic primary; Lee Bruner of Butte and Tim Fox of Helena are running for the Republican nomination.
- Superintendent of public instruction: Democrats Denise Juneau, Sam Kitzenberg, Claudette Morton and Holly Raser are competing for the nomination; Republican Elaine Herman has no primary competition.
- Public Service Commission: In southeast Montana, Democrats Ron Tussing and Tom Curry are competing for the nomination to challenge Commissioner Brad Molnar, R-Laurel. The PSC regulates state utilities.