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HELENA — Jon Tester's victory in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary Tuesday night was like a prairie fire sweeping across Montana.

As the vote tallies were reported, political observers across the state were stunned by the magnitude of Tester's win in what had been seen as a tossup.

"Although it was clear that Tester was coming on like a rocket in the last couple of weeks, I'm frankly surprised at the margin of the win," said Pat Williams, a former Democratic congressman and senior fellow at the University of Montana.

Tester, a Big Sandy farmer and Montana Senate president, grabbed 76 percent of the vote in Missoula County, 72 percent in Lewis and Clark County and 66 percent in Cascade County.

Tester saw his vote balloon to 91 percent in his home county of Chouteau, 89 percent in Liberty County and 84 percent in Hill County.

Tester won 60.8 percent of the total Democratic vote to defeat chief rival and state Auditor John Morrison, who had 35.5 percent. That drubbing occurred even though Morrison's campaign spent nearly twice as much as Tester's.

The winner captured 48 counties, Morrison took seven counties, and they tied in Fallon County, according to unofficial election returns.

So what happened? How did Tester's campaign catch fire? What doused Morrison's campaign?

"I think in a nutshell it was grass roots," Tester said Wednesday. "We hit the issues that Montanans are connected up with: energy, health care, jobs, public land issues, ethics, fiscal responsibility."

Tester said he will stay with that grass-roots model as he runs against Conrad Burns, the three-term Republican incumbent, in the general election.

"Ultimately, what I heard and what I saw last night was that voters want a change," he said. "They're tired of the same old, same old. They want somebody to represent Montana values, and they want honesty."

Here are some factors cited by political observers.

n Ethics and the Morrison affair. Both Tester and Morrison regularly attacked Burns over the incumbent's ethics because of Burns' ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the central figures in the congressional influence-peddling scandal.

In April, however, Morrison was on the receiving end of allegations of ethical improprieties.

News stories told how Morrison had an extramarital affair with a Bigfork woman before he was elected auditor in 2000. The woman later married a Flathead Valley businessman, David Tacke, whom Morrison's office investigated for securities fraud. Critics suggested Morrison's office went soft on Tacke, a claim Morrison disputed.

Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said the news of the Morrison affair and his handling of the Tacke case was the turning point in the campaign.

"Morrison had this scandal he couldn't seem to get out from under," Duffy said, adding: "I think it died as a Beltway story, but I read the clips, and it was in every one of them."

She said voters are savvy about things like electability and they came to regard Tester "as a more electable candidate against Burns because he wasn't carrying any baggage."

Craig Wilson, professor of political science at Montana State University-Billings, said Morrison started out with an advantage because he was better known, well-spoken and a proven fundraiser.

Wilson said the single most important issue in the campaign became the ethics issue, "not just marital infidelity, but the fact that it had an influence on your job."

He agreed that as Democrats thought about which Senate candidate could best attack Burns on the ethics issue, they concluded it was Tester.

Tester agreed that news of the Morrison affair "had its impact" but said his victory margin was so significant "I just think it was much more than that."

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n Person-to-person communications. In primary elections in a state like Montana, people have a chance to meet the statewide candidates, hear them and pass along their assessments to other folks, said Jerry Calvert, a political science professor at Montana State University.

"Tester's support was literally word-of-mouth," Calvert said. "In the late month, his signs in this town were springing up like mushrooms after a spring rain."

After news coverage of Morrison's affair and the Tacke investigation, "it was out there, not in the press, but in a sub-current of people talking to people," Calvert said.

Morrison declined to comment, but his campaign manager, Tylynn Gordon, said Morrison ran "an incredibly disciplined operation" that raised a record amount of money for a Senate challenger in Montana.

"But in a small, close-knit state like Montana, word-of-mouth matters more than in other places," Gordon said. "And, sometimes, larger forces are afoot that wind up thwarting even the best-laid plans. Clearly, by any measure, that's what happened here."

n Hot-button issues. Although Morrison took safer, more moderate positions on some of these issues, Tester spoke his mind on what Duffy called the "red-meat issues that Democratic primary voters care about."

For example, Tester called for Burns' resignation and bringing home the U.S. troops in Iraq.

n Dirt under the fingernails. As a working farmer, Tester contrasted greatly with Morrison, a buttoned-down attorney.

"Commonplace may be replacing glitter," Williams said. "The flat-top appears to have replaced the double-knit haircut of the last 20 years. The farmer's work coat is in vogue, replacing the three-piece suit."

n Tidal wave. "Some races are transitory," Williams said. "That is to say their importance is historic. You hear about a candidate catching a wave. In transitory historic races, a wave catches a candidate. That might be what happened here."

That's what happened in the 1974 congressional elections after the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's resignation. Democrats picked up 49 seats in the House.

"This one may be the Abramoff wave," Williams said.

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