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GREAT FALLS — As Montana Democrats gathered here Saturday for their 2011 state convention, there was no shortage of Republican-bashing and branding of the GOP as overrun with extremist elements bent on passing "crazy" ideas.

Yet in the midst of the anti-GOP broadsides, state Rep. Jon Sesso of Butte departed from the script.

Sesso, the leader of Democrats' meager House minority at the 2011 Legislature, urged Democrats in 2012 to base their campaign not on what fringe elements of the other party might have proposed, but rather on what Democrats themselves would do, if they were in power.

"We have to build the future on our best ideas," he told convention-goers at the Best Western Heritage Inn in Great Falls. "We have to tell people what would have happened if we were in power."

Republicans controlled the 2011 Legislature with a 68-32 majority in the House and 28-22 spread in the Senate, after throttling Democrats in the 2010 election.

Now, Montana Democrats say they're ready to claw their way back in 2012. Yet they face a rocky political landscape, with a struggling Democratic President Barack Obama topping the ticket and an economy that's struggling as well, three years into Obama's term.

Will Montana Democrats be able to successfully define what they stand for, and find electoral success by telling Montanans what they'll do to improve the state — or might they instead rely more on tearing down Republicans, trying to paint their opponents as extreme?

Political scientists say the 2012 campaign in Montana can't help but have its element of demonizing one's opponent. But relying solely on that strategy may not be a winner for Democrats, they say.

"They'll have an easier time of defining what they're not, or what they're not going to do," said Christopher Muste, assistant political science professor at the University of Montana. "But if they're really going to convince voters, they're going to have to say something clear about what they will do."

In Great Falls this weekend, party leaders and officeholders said they're intent on telling their story to Montana voters in 2012, and showing that Democrats have ideas that can lead the state forward to more and better jobs, a stronger economy and a sound, affordable education system.

But they also spent plenty of time dumping on Republicans and talking about what Democrats won't do.

"We're not going to put in bills like spear hunting, we're not going to waste taxpayer dollars at the Legislature on frivolous bills," said state party Chairman Jim Elliott. "We're going to return responsibility to the Legislature. We're going to remind people of Montana about ... the buffoonery that the Republicans made out of the Legislature."

When asked what they do stand for, and what they have to offer Montanans that distinguishes them from majority Republicans, Democrats said they will fully fund public education and the University System; will push to fund infrastructure, such as the $100 million bonding bill that Republicans killed in 2011; and will use government to partner with private businesses to boost job creation.

They also said they want to "responsibly develop" Montana's natural resources, such as oil, coal, timber and wind, but that resource extraction shouldn't be the be-all-and-end-all of economic progress.

"I'm not hearing a lot from the other side than, 'Let's just rely on extraction,'" said Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock, who's running for governor. "That's an important part, but I don't want to give my kids just a restoration economy."

When asked for more specifics on the path on which Democrats want to take the state, Bullock said it's still early in the campaign, and that he plans to flesh out those specifics as his campaign unfolds.

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in what's expected to be a gritty battle against Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg in 2012, said Democrats will talk about what they've done to help the economy — encourage wind power, the stimulus bill and trying to pass a forest jobs bill — and what they want to do in the future.

"We have a lot of ideas," he said. "We can learn from the past. It's a proven job creator if you invest in education, in infrastructure and research and development."

Dave Parker, a political scientist on the Montana State University faculty, said political parties need "brands" and that there's a "hunger for a clear platform direction" for Democrats. Top-of-the-ticket leaders like Tester and the gubernatorial nominee will start establishing that direction now, he said.

Yet Democrats may be walking a thin line, he said, because their solutions often involve government spending, and "I don't think there's much of a stomach for government expansion."

Elliott and other Democratic Party officials said the 2011 Legislature clearly had the money to put more state funding into education and prevent tuition increases at the state university system, but that majority Republicans refused to do it.

"It was evident that education was not a priority for Republicans," he said. "Democrats will make sure that education is a priority."

Sesso, the House minority leader, told party members and volunteers Saturday that they should list the specific ideas they want to pursue and run on those. He noted that in the last session, Democrats had bills to give relief to residential property taxpayers, as well as close tax loopholes for tax "cheaters," that would have created revenue to pay for programs they wanted to sustain to help the state.

It's time to start telling that story, he said, and tell it clearly and forcefully.

"It will be self-evident who brought the best ideas to Helena (in 2011), and why those weren't able to happen," Sesso said. "I want everyone to tell me which bill you would put forward."

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Digital Director

Digital director at the Billings Gazette.