BIG SANDY — A buoyant and confident Denny Rehberg took his bus tour to the hometown of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday in his campaign to unseat the first-term Democrat.
Big Sandy's population is only about 600 people, but it wasn't too small for Rehberg to stop for a campaign rally. He said he expects to win in the town where a roadside sign welcomes visitors to the home of Tester, whose family's original homestead is just a few miles away.
And Rehberg probably will — although only about a dozen locals showed up for a short stump speech. In 2006, when Tester beat then-incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the grain farmer was unable to carry his home county.
Rehberg, the six-term Republican congressman, is certain that his simple and direct campaign message resonates with the rural residents: Tester votes with President Barack Obama and didn't listen to people back home when he voted in favor of the federal health care bill.
Tester has pushed back by pointing out his differences with the president on several issues — like oil development — and the work he has done for Montana constituents.
Tester is hanging on in a brutal re-election campaign. Polls show the race tight, but with Rehberg holding a slight edge in a state where Obama could lose by double digits. During a morning campaign stop in Havre, Rehberg was visibly pleased as he used his cellphone to view a new Montana State University-Billings poll showing him with a three-point lead, a result within the margin of error.
At a debate earlier this week, Rehberg and Tester fired away at each other with familiar messages. But Rehberg, somewhat surprisingly, introduced a new tax plan when he adamantly backed a flat tax.
Rehberg said in an interview the idea is not new to him. He said he often states the flat tax is his preference for a replacement system.
But the veteran Republican isn't backing a specific plan, and said he wasn't aware of Republican vice presidential candidate and fellow congressman Paul Ryan's two-tiered flat tax proposal that had a low rate of 10 percent and a high rate of 25 percent. Like any change, it is chockfull of potential winners and losers.
"One difficulty is that it changes the distribution of tax burdens," said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center. "Typically you are going to have some low income people paying more than they are currently paying, and some high income people paying less than they are currently paying."
Other political pitfalls exist for flat tax proposals: Would farmers still get to write off big-ticket equipment? Would deductions remain for homeowners?
Rehberg said he doesn't have those details yet. He said he wants the specifics of the proposals to come from Montanans during conversations he plans to hold on the topic if elected to the U.S. Senate.
"I really do believe that people want a simplified tax system," Rehberg said. "And you don't design this in Washington."
Tester has been critical of Rehberg for dismissing specific solutions — like Tester's support of a stalled bipartisan tax and budget solution — while only offering vague assertions in response. The Democrat has been painting Rehberg as a career politician who travels the world on the taxpayer dime without any substantial results to show for it.
Rehberg is on a seven-day campaign bus tour that includes stops in a couple of dozen mostly rural towns. The tour leads up to a Sunday debate in Kalispell.
One Rehberg supporter in Big Sandy said local voters are too conservative for Tester to win over, although obviously some do support their neighbor. But local substitute teach Barbara Ophus worries a recent attack against Rehberg for suing the city of Billings over the way firefighters handled a wildfire on his land could cost the Republican the election.
"I am really concerned about that ad, and what it could do," Ophus said after Rehberg's Big Sandy rally.
The Tester campaign took a dig at Rehberg on the issue again on Thursday as the Republican campaigned in the incumbent's neighborhood.
"Dennis Rehberg sued taxpayers and firefighters in his own hometown, so he should be careful if he thinks this race is a popularity contest among neighbors," said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy.
The attacks don't appear to be dimming Rehberg's confidence.
Tester recently told The Associated Press that he will return to his Big Sandy farm full time if he loses — eschewing any other Washington D.C. opportunities.
Rehberg, on the other hand, paused several beats to consider what he would do if he loses.
" I don't know," Rehberg said after mulling the question. "I am not going to lose."