By BOB ANEZ AP Political Writer
HELENA - Votes cast in the two contested Montana Supreme Court races during the June 8 primary won't count. But they do matter.
The straw vote can shape how the candidates run their campaigns for the November general election, but none believe the outcome in the primary dictates results in the fall.
Brian Morris and Ed McLean, candidates in one race, believe the size of the vote difference can be critical. No one can afford to be blown out, they said.
''The primary is significant,'' Morris said. ''It's a barometer of your name recognition and the first straw poll in the race. The actual winner and loser is not as important as the margin.
''If you're competitive, it leaves you in a good position,'' he added. ''The trick is to spend enough money to be competitive and not squander your resources before the fall.''
McLean said primary vote spread helps a candidate measure the effectiveness of advertising and may indicate a need to change strategy. The tally also can affect campaign contributions, he said.
''If you do really well, it will help in fund-raising efforts,'' McLean said. ''If it looks like the chances are pretty bleak, contributors may question whether to give any money.''
Two-candidate Supreme Court races are unique in primary elections. Both contenders will automatically advance to the general election. As nonpartisan contests, they appear on both the Republican and Democratic ballots and offer a head-to-head test run where everybody gets a chance to vote.
Justice James Nelson, running for re-election against Bozeman attorney Cindy Younkin, said a wide difference in the primary vote count may be perceived by some as sign of strength in one candidate and weakness in the trailer. For the latter, the vote can either cause supporters to work harder or abandon the candidate for he opposition, he said.
But Nelson is convinced primary voting will have no effect on his fund-raising efforts or campaign momentum.
''In any election, you like to do as well as you can and get more votes than the other candidates,'' he said. ''In this particular race, it's the general election that counts.''
Younkin said the major value in the primary is allowing candidates to analyze performance county by county, precinct by precinct.
''The most beneficial use of that information is to say where you're weak, where you're strong and where you need to spend your time,'' she said.
History has shown, more often than not, that June voting is a harbinger of November's results.
Twenty Supreme Court races over the past 36 years featured just two candidates and meaningless voting in the primary election. The top vote-getter in those elections lost in the general election just five times, although four of those instances occurred since 1990.
Terry Trieweiler, a member of the court for almost a dozen years until he retired in 2003, was involved in three of those turnarounds.
Primary election results carry less weight in the general election than they once did, he said. ''In previous times, people would look to the primary and see who's ahead. The theory was if you're doing well in primary, you'll pick up support for the general election.''
Now, however, Supreme Court races draw interest from beyond those willing to support only someone popular enough to do best in the primary, Trieweiler said.
For a handful of other candidates, the primary election means waiting in the wings for the main event in November.
Neither Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., nor his Democratic challenger Tracy Velazquez of Bozeman have opposition from their respective parties. The same is true in the state auditor's race, where Democratic incumbent John Morrison and Republican Duane Grimes, a state senator from Clancy, won't square off until November.
Supreme Court Justice John Warner and Attorney General Mike McGrath, both unopposed for re-election, are assured of winning in the fall. In the six district judge races on the ballot, the incumbents are the only candidates.