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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 17:17 GMT
Scandal key to Montana Senate race
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Montana

With his white cowboy hat, blue jeans and orange jacket, Senator Conrad Burns looked completely at home at the Billings Rodeo.

Vice-President Dick Cheney (l) campaigns with Republican Senator Conrad Burns
Vice-President Dick Cheney has given Conrad Burns his backing

With his white cowboy hat, blue jeans and orange jacket, Senator Conrad Burns looked completely at home at the Billings Rodeo.

As well he might, for - 39 years ago - the three-time Republican senator from Montana became the event's first general manager.

On a chilly autumnal night, as he watched competing cowboys try to remain on horseback (or, in the case of the junior cowboys - the three- to six-year-old "mutton busters" - to remain on sheep-back) he may have been reflecting on his own difficulty in clinging on to his senate seat.

For, ever since it was revealed that Mr Burns accepted $150,000 (78,000) in donations from the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Democrats have tried to paint him as a symbol of what they have called a Republican "culture of corruption".

Map showing Montana

According to most opinion polls, they've had considerable success.

Democrats began to push the "culture of corruption" label soon after Mr Abramoff - a lobbyist with close links to the Republican leadership - pleaded guilty, in January, to charges of corrupting public officials.

The beltway buzz at the time suggested he had the sort of explosive information that could lead to multiple indictments of members of congress and that this, in itself, could seriously damage the Republicans' chances of holding on to their majorities.

In the event, those claims turned out to be an exaggeration. This has not been Abramoff's election - or, indeed, one where the issue of sleaze has been centre stage.

Corruption dragnet

But in certain states and certain races it IS playing a potentially decisive role.

Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff (file picture, Jan 2006)
Conrad Burns's reputation has been tarnished by links to Jack Abramoff

In Ohio, Republican Governor Bob Taft will not be standing, having been damaged by a scandal involving the non-disclosure of gifts, while Republican Congressman Bob Ney was recently convicted of taking bribes from Abramoff and his associates.

Both sets of ethical problems have hurt Republican morale, in a state which has played a decisive role in previous elections.

In Texas, meanwhile, Tom DeLay - the influential former House Majority Leader and close associate of Jack Abramoff, who is currently facing money-laundering charges - was eventually dissuaded from standing for re-election.

His decision undoubtedly sucked some of the sting from the Democrats' "culture of corruption" charges, but it has not prevented Senator Burns from getting caught up in the corruption dragnet. Indeed, it has probably put more of the focus on him.

Flat top haircut

During the final debate between the senator and his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, in the northern town of Great Falls, members of the public seemed very familiar - not only with the name Jack Abramoff - but also with the inside-Washington phrase "the K Street project".

Democratic Senate challenger Jon Tester rides on the back of his pick-up truck on his farm
Jon Tester has focused on the corruption claims in his campaigning

That was the term for the Republican push (led, ironically, by Tom DeLay) to fill lobbying firms in the nation's capital with people broadly sympathetic to their cause.

Mr Tester - a farmer turned state senator, who points to his flat top haircut as a sign that he is "authentically" Montanan - has used the phrase throughout the campaign. It appears to have made an impression.

The audience at the debate was largely made up of Tester supporters, wearing distinctive, punning yellow T-shirts, bearing the phrase "Fire Burns".

However, the Burns supporters present seemed confident that they were part of quiet majority of Montanans, who view the corruption allegations as an attempt to smear the character of a dependable former cattle auctioneer, who has successfully represented their state for 18 years.

Campaign sign for Conrad Burns
Burns's backers see the corruption claims as an attempt to smear him

And, of course, it's not just Republicans who have been accused of corrupt practices.

William Jefferson - a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana - did no small amount of damage to the Democrats' "culture of corruption" soundbite, when he was found, by the FBI, to have $90,000 stashed in his freezer.

The investigation is ongoing, but locally, at least, the nickname "Dollar Bill" Jefferson has already stuck.

Back at the Billings Rodeo, Conrad Burns was presenting an award for rodeo ethics and getting a warm reception from the crowd.

But questions about his own ethics could mean he gets rather less sympathy from Montana's voters on election day.

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