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HELENA - As Democrat Lane Larson prepares to defend his state Senate seat in the district stretching from Billings to Miles City, he knows he has a target on his back.

"I'm under no illusions that I wasn't going to have a tough race," he says.

Larson, 50, an electrician who lives in Lockwood, is being challenged by Republican Taylor Brown, a longtime Billings radio personality.

SD22 key race

The contest in Senate District 22, however, isn't just another legislative race. It's among the key races that may decide party control of the 2009 Montana Legislature, which is shaping up as one of this year's premier political ccontests.

Beginning Tuesday, Montana candidates can officially file to run in this crowded political year, which features races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, Supreme Court chief justice and other statewide offices.

Yet many of these top individual races may not be races at all, with incumbents heavily favored to win.

Party officials say this possible lack of close competition in the top-tier races is shifting attention down the ladder to the Legislature, where party control is entirely up for grabs.

"We've really put a focus on the Legislature this time around," said Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana Republican Party. "We need to control that Legislature not only for the policy reasons, but for party-building and recruiting reasons.

'Rebuild a party'

"We're trying to rebuild a party and get a governing majority back, and we have to start with the Legislature."

Going into the 2008 election, Democrats hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate and Republicans have a 50-49 edge in the House. Constitution Party Rep. Rick Jore of Ronan, who normally votes with the Republicans, holds the 100th House seat, but he's not running for re-election.

Neither party is laying claim to any special advantage for winning the House, which is bound to remain closely divided and whose swing districts are many, diverse and difficult to predict.

All 100 House seats are up for election, along with half of the 50 Senate seats.

But in the Senate, Republicans feel they have the edge going in - and some Democrats are saying privately that they agree.

Of the 25 Senate seats up for election this year, Republicans must defend only nine of them, while 16 Democratic seats are on the line.

To make matters tougher for Democrats in the Senate, they're losing several incumbents in districts that lean Republican. The incumbents either can't run for re-election because of term limits or have chosen not to run again.

The GOP has recruited what it sees as strong candidates in those districts and several other races that look competitive, and think it can win the two or three of these seats needed to win majority control.

"We're in excellent position right now to win control of the Senate," said Iverson.

One of these key battlegrounds is the race between Larson and Brown in SD22, which runs 150 miles along the Yellowstone River from the Billings area to Miles City, including the towns of Colstrip, Forsyth, Huntley and Hysham.

Larson won the seat in 2004 by 490 votes out of about 8,600 cast. It was one of a half-dozen races where Democrats pulled off close victories as they took control of the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

The matchup here this time around looks like a microcosm of the campaign debate likely to play out across the state in 2008.

Larson, like his fellow Democrats, is saying they've done a good job since they've won the governorship in 2004 and essentially controlled the Legislature, presiding over a mostly booming economy and more funding for schools, health care and other items.

"Hey, we're on the right track, and we want to continue that," he said. "You can talk the doom-and-gloom stuff, but we really are doing well in Montana."

Brown, who owns the Northern Broadcasting System based in Billings and is a well-known farm broadcaster on radio and TV, says he'll be a voice for business, which needs lower taxes and less regulation to thrive.

"My hope is that our representation will be a lot stronger in areas that matter to the Chamber of Commerce," he said. "I will be a strong voice for lower taxes, for business, for stronger private property rights."

Brown, 51, who grew up on a ranch near Sand Springs and lives now in Huntley, said he'll also emphasize his ties to agriculture in the largely rural district.

Larson, who grew up in the district and has worked as an electrician "from one end of the district to the other," said he'll campaign hard against an opponent he expects will be well-funded.

"My biggest challenge is to let people know (how) I've represented them for the past four years," he said. "It's my home; I know a lot of folks here."

Both sides also say they've had no problem recruiting candidates in the two dozen or so races that will swing the balance of power in both the House and Senate.

Rep. Bob Bergren, a Havre Democrat who's been helping recruit candidates, said Democrats remember the 2007 Legislature as one where conservative Republicans controlled the leadership of the House and forced a special legislative session when they wouldn't agree to a budget.

"There was a clear line drawn in the sand," Bergren said. "Everybody was sort of drifting toward the center, and they took a hard right, and that doesn't represent Montana. We're light-years from where we were last (election) in recruiting."

Iverson said Republicans are eager to turn the tables on Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who's up for re-election and who has been having his way at the Legislature.

"We've done a really good job of recruiting good candidates in the key races," he said. "There is sort of a general 'Schweitzer fatigue' that has set in out there, and that's given our candidates a lot of energy."