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Big Sky or Big City? Abramoff an issue in Montana

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BILLINGS, Montana (CNN) -- Montana doesn't have much to do with Washington D.C. -- or at least Republican Sen. Conrad Burns doesn't want his constituency to think so.

That's why you might hear Burns talking to his constituents about the "terrible price" he paid for steer in a troublesome cattle market.

But with the potentially pivotal midterm elections drawing near, Burns has been forced to redirect his rhetoric, as Democratic challenger and state lawmaker Jon Tester attempts to paint Burns as a Washington insider with ties to former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to charges involving fraud, public corruption and tax evasion for conspiring to bribe public officials, has become a focal point of the race. Once one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington, Abramoff is now the subject of investigations into his interactions with legislators and public officials.

And Tester has no qualms about making the race about Burns and the company he allegedly keeps.

A campaign ad for Tester accuses Burns of "voting for tax breaks for oil companies, pork-barrel earmarks and getting millions for a client of Jack Abramoff," then flatly states, "Conrad Burns, he's been in Washington too long."

Burns shot back in his own commercial, denying he has ever been the recipient of Abramoff's back-scratching.

"I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he never influenced me," said the three-term incumbent.

Burns, who is one of the Democrats' favorite targets in the Abramoff scandal, told The Washington Post in December that he would return $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff and the former lobbyist's clients and associates.

There is no proof of anything illegal, but Burns still can't shake it.

"Man, it has been nasty this time," said Burns. "Of course, I have been putting up with it for 18 months."

Tester, a Big Sandy-based organic farmer who at age 9 lost three fingers on his left hand in a meat grinder, runs a low-key, unassuming campaign. And he likes to play the farm card, once telling Time magazine, "I do some of my best thinking on my tractor."

He pushes his Montana roots, and he frames the Burns-Abramoff connection as proof that his opponent has gone big city and no longer connects to the people of Montana.

"We have got roots that go deep and we love this state and we will not go Washington and get Potomac Fever as Senator Burns has done over the last 18 years," Tester said.

Burns, on the other hand, is a gaffe-prone, boisterous, back-slapping politician who will not let Tester out-Montana him. While Tester sells roots, Burns sells reach.

"When you look at who has the seniority -- the effectiveness and the experience to represent this great state in the United States Senate -- you are looking at him," Burns said in a debate.

Even without the Abramoff scandal, Tester was likely looking good in today's anti-war, anti-incumbent, anti-Republican atmosphere. But Abramoff allowed Tester to pile it on.

"Oh, I think it helped," Tester said, "because I think it has pointed out who Conrad Burns is."

Though Burns may be facing the toughest election bid of his career, the Montana senator is counting on a crack voter turnout operation -- and his experience -- to keep his seat.

"Never had an easy one," Burns said of his congressional campaigns, adding, "it is not our first rodeo."

Polls indicate the Burns-Tester race is a toss-up.

CNN's Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

Democrat Jon Tester, left, and GOP Sen. Conrad Burns are sparring over Burns' ties to ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.



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