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HELENA — When Montanans cast their ballots in 2012, it may be one of the state's most significant elections in at least a generation, a political scientist says.

Topping the state races is what's being billed as the nation's most competitive U.S. Senate race. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, vying for a second six-year term, faces a stiff challenge from U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a congressman since 2001.

Races for the House seat being vacated by Rehberg and the governor's seat being given up by term-limited Gov. Brian Schweitzer are attracting plenty of interest.

Fierce battles are expected across the state as Democrats try to narrow Republican majorities in the House and Senate after a particularly contentious 2011 Legislature.

The attorney general's seat will be open, and Democratic incumbents will try to retain their jobs as auditor, superintendent of public instruction, secretary of state and Supreme Court clerk. Two Supreme Court seats are up for election, as are three Public Service Commission posts.

Gone are the days when political campaigns began in the election year.

The U.S. Senate race campaign officially started in earnest in February 2011 when Rehberg said he would take on Tester. The two men have been engaged in a verbal slugfest ever since, while outside groups already have dumped several million dollars into TV attack ads against one candidate or the other.

Politico, a Washington publication, last week ranked Montana's Senate race as the nation's most competitive Senate contest and called it essentially a draw at this point.

"While a pair of private surveys delivered mixed results, no public poll has shown the needle budging significantly in one direction, making this the toughest Senate race in the country to call," Politico said.

David Parker, a Montana State University political science professor, said 2012 may be the biggest election cycle Montana has seen since 1988. That was when Republican Conrad Burns unseated two-term Democratic Sen. John Melcher, marking the first time the GOP had won a Senate race in Montana since 1946. Republican Stan Stephens also won the governorship, breaking a 20-year string of Democratic governors.

"We should see more money spent than ever before -- courtesy of the Citizens United (U.S. Supreme Court decision) and the Internet, which makes raising money easier and cheaper," Parker said of the Senate race. "In many ways, we -- as Montana voters -- will be setting the state's direction for a long time to come."

Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University Billings, predicted the 2012 Montana political races will be "endless, pugnacious and exciting."

"I think we'll see record spending, high voter interest, high turnout," Wilson said.

The chairmen of Montana's two major political parties predictably see the election differently.

"I think it's a watershed election," said Democratic Chairman Jim Elliott of Trout Creek. "What we see at stake here are the values of middle-class Montanans versus billionaire out-of-staters."

Elliott called Tester a "genuine article" who has worked to create jobs in Montana, jobs in forest and recreation and voted for the Keystone XL pipeline. Rehberg has done "virtually nothing in Congress" and voted against giving small business and middle-class Montanans a tax break "so he can give millionaires preferential treatment," he said.

State Republican Chairman Will Deschamps of Missoula looks for a hectic election year. He anticipates that the unpopularity of President Barack Obama and some of his policies will give GOP candidates a big boost.

"I think this will be a life-changing election for Montanans and for the citizens of the United States," he said. "People are still upset with the president. They're upset with ‘Obamacare' and all the spending and the bailouts. Quite frankly, I think that will drive a lot of people to the polls that might otherwise stay home."

Deschamps said Republicans intend to do everything they can to tie Tester to Obama, reminding people that Tester has voted with Obama 97 percent of the time.

Parker said linking a candidate to an unpopular administration is a common tactic. Tester tied Burns to President George W. Bush in 2006, he said, while Obama linked his 2008 opponent, John McCain, to Bush.

"The tactic is only effective if the voters believe it, and whether they do so depends on whether Tester has made an effective case of being an independent voice," Parker said. "Conversely, the Tester folks will try and tie Congressman Rehberg to the House Republican leadership."

Regardless of what happens in the Senate race, Wilson said that Montanans are well-known ticket-splitters, voting for a Democrat here, a Republican there as they run down their ballots.

Montana's sole U.S. House seat has drawn five Democratic challengers and one Republican, Steve Daines, who initially ran for the Senate but dropped down to the House race after Rehberg decided to go for the Senate. The Democrats are state lawmakers Kim Gillian of Billings and Franke Wilmer of Bozeman, businesswoman Diane Smith of Whitefish Missoula City Council member Dave Strohmaier, and attorney Rob Stutz of Helena.

"Anytime you have an open seat, it attracts candidates," Wilson said.

"We've got some real good candidates in there," Elliott said of the Democrats. "This will be a race."

Deschamps likes Daines' chances, saying that no strong, well-known Democrat has jumped into the race.

"Daines can sit pretty while the Dems beat each other up," Parker said. "That's the advantage he has -- the ability to keep his powder dry."

However, the MSU professor said, Daines is what political scientists call "a political amateur," someone who's never held office before but who tends to make mistakes.

"Amateurs can do well when political tides are running in their direction and when they have a professional staff around them," he said.

The governor's race trails only the Senate battle in importance.

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A record nine Republicans are vying for their party's nomination, including former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill of Helena, state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings and two ex-lawmakers, Ken Miller of Laurel and Corey Stapleton of Billings. Others are Bob Fanning of Pray, Neil Livingstone of Helena, Jim Lynch of Kalispell, Jim O'Hara of Fort Benton and Drew Turiano of Helena.

"It's kind of crazy, but people can do whatever they want," GOP Chairman Deschamps said. "We don't recruit. We're going to sit silent until after the primary. We'll work with whoever comes out on top."

Democratic Chairman Elliott panned the GOP field for governor as nine people, "each of them trying to be more extreme than the others."

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Steve Bullock is the heavy favorite for his party's nomination for governor. State Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman also is running.

Starting Jan. 1, Deschamps said Republicans will turn up the heat on Bullock on issues such as his Land Board votes against natural-resource development and his refusal to join a number of other state attorneys general challenging the Obama's health insurance reform bill.

Montanans also will elect a new attorney general and decide whether to retain or reject Democratic incumbents in the offices of auditor, school superintendent and secretary of state.

The battle for control of the state Senate and House figures to be aggressive statewide. Republicans hold a 28-22 lead in the Senate and a huge 68-32 majority in the House. All 100 House seats are up for election this year, along with 26 Senate seats (25 of the 50 seats and a race to fill a vacant seat in the Havre area).

Elliott said Democrats want parity and majorities.

"One of the reasons I think we have an excellent chance is when you look at the extremists in the Republican leadership and some of the Republican House and Senate members," Elliott said. He cited unsuccessful bills allowing Montana to switch to the gold standard, declaring global warming good and legalizing spear hunting.

"It made our state the butt of jokes nationally," he said. "They just embarrassed Montana."

Wilson said some of the actions of the GOP-led Legislature even had Republican voters shaking their heads.

"I agree with Governor Schweitzer that some of the that stuff was bat-crap crazy,"  said Wilson, the MSU Billings professor.

Deschamps brushed aside Democratic criticism of the Legislature, saying, "This is the same party that criticized the Republicans for not spending the money. The governor got mad, as did the Democratic legislators. Now there's $400 million surplus and they say look what a great job they did."

Legislators have to answer to voters in their district, not someone across the state, he said.

He said GOP legislators also are likely to talk about some of the good job-creating bills that Schweitzer vetoed.

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