HELENA - Democrat Steve Bullock didn't know for certain he'd won the hard-fought race for attorney general until around 1 a.m. Wednesday when his Republican challenger, Tim Fox, called to concede the contest.
By then, Bullock led by some 20,000 votes and it was obvious Fox could not recover. The Associated Press called the race later Wednesday morning, with Bullock winning 52 to 48 percent.
The race was one of the most expensive, visible and bitter contests of the 2008 election season. How Bullock won and where may offer clues to Montana's political landscape.
Early on, Fox defined the race on his signature issues: cyber sex predators and gun rights. The Montana Republican Party later identified the race as a priority and spent more than $388,000 on television ads attacking Bullock.
Bullock pushed his own issues: cracking down on prescription drug abuse, ensuring recreational access to state waters and public lands and child safety.
Bullock said Wednesday he didn't want to run a nasty campaign and didn't run any pure attack ads. Late in the campaign, the Montana Democratic Party launched its own attack on Fox, which the party had to change after televisions stations refused to air it because of concerns about its accuracy.
Asked if his victory may have been a repudiation of the Fox and GOP campaign tactics, Bullock said he'd let the "political scientists chew on that one."
"I'm very proud of the campaign that we ran and my family is proud of it, too," he said. "I'm happy I get to enter into (the attorney general's office) feeling good about what we did to get there."
Kevin O'Brien, a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, which did launch an attack on Fox, said the Fox campaign failed to tell voters why they should vote for Fox.
"The only things we saw from Tim (Fox) were scare tactics and wedge issues," he said. "He tried to scare people into voting for him, and we saw that Montana voters weren't going to be swayed by those tactics."
Neither Fox nor Chuck Denowh, his campaign manager, returned telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
Erik Iverson, chairman of the Montana Republican Party, said Bullock and all Democratic statewide candidates were helped by the aggressive early voting campaign of President-elect Barack Obama. While Montana ultimately went with Republican Sen. John McCain in the presidential race, the early voting returns favored Democrats, Iverson said, and the GOP candidates never recovered.
Bullock won big in predictable Democratic strongholds like Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow and Lewis and Clark counties. He also carried most counties with a high American Indian population, including Big Horn, Roosevelt and Glacier counties.
Fox carried most of the state's rural counties, along with the GOP strongholds of Gallatin and Flathead counties.
But Bullock won Yellowstone County, Montana's most populous and long considered safe Republican territory.
O'Brien said four Democrats prevailed in the county in victorious statewide races. Only Democratic secretary of state-elect Linda McCulloch did not win Yellowstone County.
Bullock also took a few other GOP-leaning counties, including Park and Pondera counties, and gave Fox a tight race in several others, including Carbon, Chouteau and Jefferson counties.
Iverson said the party was not surprised that Bullock won Yellowstone County and that Fox "underperformed" in some counties where campaign leaders were hoping for more votes.
"I was disappointed to see Tim didn't make it," he said. "But Steve Bullock is a good candidate and a good guy. I think it was a good, hard-fought race and Montanans can be proud of how the whole thing shook out. Both were great candidates. That's why you have an election."
Bullock said he worked hard in Yellowstone County, but added that he worked hard everywhere and was "humbled" by the results.
Some had speculated that the winner of the attorney general's race would be in a good position to run for governor in 2012, when Schweitzer's second term expires and he is barred by term limits from running again.
But Iverson said the Republicans wins at the legislative level Tuesday night may reshape that thinking. The Legislature is where future leaders are often made, he said. The Republicans, with a clear majority in the state Senate and an apparent tie in the House of Representatives, are now in a position of real power, despite losing every statewide race except Rep. Denny Rehberg's.
Bullock said Wednesday that he is not looking down the road that far. He said he was happy with his win and taking a few days to catch his breath, spend time with his family and go deer hunting this weekend.
"The most important part of this isn't winning an election, it's serving in the office," he said. "I'm looking forward to that next chapter."