Montana: For veteran Baucus, it seems to be in the bag

  • Sen. Max Baucus visits a Missoula high school

    Kurt Wilson/NYT Pictures
  • Lt. Gov. Dennis Rehberg campaigns at a Labor Day picnic

    Perry Backus/NYT Pictures

In polling, a lot depends on how you ask the questions. And on how you read the answers.

Max Baucus, a Democrat running for his fourth term in the U.S. Senate, points to polls that have consistently put him 10 or more points above Republican challenger Dennis Rehberg, Montana's current lieutenant governor.

But Rehberg sees encouragement in the polls. He said they tell him 61 percent of Montana voters want somebody to replace Baucus.

"They just don't know it's me yet," Rehberg said.

In spite of the challenger's buoyant attitude, a late-September poll showed Baucus ahead by 14 points - a vast improvement over his 9-point lead in May.

Rehberg, 40, grew up on a Billings ranch but has spent most of his adult life working for politicians or in elected office. He says there is a "direct relationship" between bigger government and personal misery. And he says that as a U.S. senator he wants to make government smaller and life less complicated.

After 22 years in Washington as congressman and senator, Baucus has been there too long and is out of touch with Montanans, Rehberg said. He accuses Baucus of flip-flopping on issues ranging from wolf reintroduction to gun control to the balanced budget amendment.

"It's about consistency," Rehberg said. "People want to know what you say is what you mean." Baucus has changed his positions on the Brady Bill and on the ban on assault weapons - he now supports both - and while he supports restoration of wolves in the West, he has criticized the way federal officials dealt with rural people.

Rehberg opposes the reintroduction of wolves and any limits on guns; he supports the salvage logging rider.

Baucus touts his experience and seniority at every opportunity: his ranking committee seats, his ability to deliver federal money for Montana projects like interstate highways and whirling disease research, his influence with the Clinton administration.

The son of a wealthy Helena ranching family, Baucus is a lawyer who has spent most of his adult life in politics. While he's a better bet for environmentalists than his rival, his deep ties to mining keep him from living up to Rehberg's label of him as a friend of "radical environmentalists."

The incumbent has also raised a lot more money than has Rehberg. By the end of June he had raised $3.4 million while Rehberg had raised only $563,000.

Reform Party candidate Becky Shaw could be a factor in a close contest. A former Baucus aide, she got 21 percent of the vote in the 1994 Democratic primary. Winner Jack Mudd lost to incumbent Republican Conrad Burns in the general election that year.

This article is part of a feature package - about the 1996 election - that includes these other articles:

- Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

- Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

- Utah: A liberal wilderness lover may prevail

- Montana: A scrappy Republican tries to cut down a green Democrat

- California: A 28-year-old talks the talk to green voters

- Washington: Greens storm the suburbs

- Arizona: Harvesting a bumper crop of bombast

- Nevada: Who hates nuclear waste most?

High Country News Classifieds