Raining on Burns fire

Media-savvy Dem takes on heavily funded Montana incumbent

Democrats think they may be able to knock off U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) as they work to win the six seats they need to claim control of the Senate this year.

Burns, a former radio broadcaster who chairs the Senate Communications Subcommittee, is running against rancher Brian Schweitzer, an aggressive campaigner who knows how to play the media.

Or to put it in the convoluted argot of Washington, "We don't have another candidate that gets media coverage that's message-driven the way Schweitzer does," says David DiMartino, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Democrats claim that Schweitzer has closed a 24-point polling gap as of May to within 9 points in early August, citing a poll by Democratic firm Lake Snell Perry. That poll also showed that 50% of the population in Montana does not support Burns.

Republicans dismiss those numbers because they were released by Schweitzer's campaign. "Schweitzer has made noise and gotten ink, but that hasn't really changed the poll numbers at all," says Stuart Roy, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Burns has a huge fund-raising advantage over Schweitzer, with many national donors giving to his campaign. Burns so far has raised $3.5 million, and plans to raise a total of $5 million. Schweitzer had raised more than $600,000 by the end of June, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and press reports.

"The only thing that could help Schweitzer is if Burns totally screws up, and I think he's too smart for that," says Jim Fall, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association.

But there are plenty of stories that show Burns is not entirely connected with Montana voters, and he may have some making up to do to win in November.

Last June, Burns blew off a debate with Schweitzer organized by the newspaper group to attend a golfing fund-raiser in Virginia.

"The old saying is that you don't argue with people who buy ink by the barrel, but that tells you a little something about Conrad," Fall says. "He's in charge, and he'll do what he wants to."

Fall says Burns told him face-to-face on two separate occasions that he would attend the debate, but, three weeks before it, Falls received a form letter from the campaign saying Burns had a scheduling conflict.

"We have said over and over again that there obviously was a huge miscommunication," says Tricia Pearson, Burns' campaign spokeswoman.

Still, Schweitzer showed up and spoke to the crowd standing next to an empty chair with a sign labeled "Senator Burns" on it.

The event, since it happened in front of nearly every newspaper executive in the state, was big news in June.

Schweitzer also has won coverage by taking busloads of seniors across the Canadian and Mexican borders to buy cheaper prescription drugs. That stunt has been successful enough to be copied by other Senate campaigns in Minnesota, and it got him a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.