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GOP candidates for governor

From left, Jim O'Hara, Rick Hill, Neil Livingstone, Corey Stapleton, Drew Turiano, Jeff Essmann, Bob Fanning, Ken Miller and Jim Lynch take part in a forum of Republican candidates for governor in Billings.

HELENA – The race to court the Republican Party’s most conservative voters has prompted two candidates for governor to sign a lengthy “constitutional” pledge that, among other things, promises they will resign from office if they don’t pursue such policies as privatizing state entitlement programs and pensions.

It’s the latest escalation in a pitched primary battle featuring a number of candidates who proudly tout conservative credentials as they seek to sway GOP voters increasingly interested in finding “constitutional” leaders.

Former Washington, D.C., consultant Neil Livingstone recently gained the endorsement of an outspoken conservative leader by signing the “Montana Constitutional Governance Pledge.” And longshot candidate Bob Fanning’s refusal to sign it prompted Ed Berry of Kalispell, who also writes a conservative blog, to blast him as a delusional “prima donna.”

The exchange reveals the tense battle going on between the candidates and conservative activists aiming to oust from the Republican Party any candidates or elected officials they believe are too moderate or ineffective.

The new pledge appears to go beyond a general support of the state and federal constitutions by also laying out conservative goals like school vouchers, tax reduction, and a rollback of regulations and bureaucracy that impede business.

And in at least one case it appears to possibly run afoul of the Montana Constitution, which lays out in great detail how revenue from state land will be used to fund education. The pledge, however, says that state land revenue should instead be used to reduce income and property taxes.

Dennis Hicks, a small businessman from Hamilton, is one of the authors and a member of the Montana Alliance for Constitutionalism that is backing the pledge. He said it will allow voters to unite and find the real conservatives in the GOP field.

But Hicks said he thinks details of the pledge can be negotiated over time, despite the vow to resign if its current tenets are not met.

“There may be some work that needs to be done working with the state Legislature,” Hicks said.

Another candidate who recently signed on, former state Sen. Corey Stapleton of Billings, said he was involved with its authors from the start. Stapleton said he believes the pledge simply articulates goals that signers should try to accomplish if they can, working in a legal way.

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“The pledge says you have to try and do these things that are constitutional,” Stapleton said. “I think it is a set of policy goals for constitutional conservatives.”

Livingstone, a unique candidate who as an international consultant last year tried to recruit the Moammar Gadhafi family as a client and advertises on his resume membership to the exclusive Cosmos Club in the nation’s capital, said he thinks the pledge is about accountability. The Writers Guild of America member, who is seeking support from other trade unions, said he also believes he is conservative enough to court core Republicans.

“I would consider myself a very conservative candidate, and maybe I would be most conservative,” Livingstone said. “But at the same time, I am also a big tent candidate.”

Former state Sen. Ken Miller has been very vocal about his religious beliefs as he courts social conservatives, and has touted his conservative voting record in drawing support from some tea party advocates. But Miller, like perceived front-runner and former congressman Rick Hill, did not sign the pledge.

“I haven’t seen this exact pledge. I don’t feel the need to sign a pledge when for the 20 years I have been involved in politics and that is how I have always performed, the guidance by which I have already operated under,” Miller said of following the constitution. “For me, it is not just about saying things now because it is the popular thing to do.”

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