By BOB ANEZ/AP Political Writer
HELENA - Democrats, who have found themselves on the political sidelines in Montana for a decade, believe this is their year to get back in the game. And even some Republicans concede the optimism may not be just partisan bravado.
The big difference this year, officials in both parties agree, is the redrawn legislative districts that were designed by the Democrat-controlled Districting and Apportionment Commission to benefit Democratic candidates.
''There are a lot more seats that are truly competitive than before,'' said Bob Ream, state Democratic Party chairman. ''We think we can compete. I think we can make gains.''
''They do have reason for optimism because of the way they were able to gerrymander the districts to their advantage,'' said House Majority Leader Roy Brown of Billings, director of the GOP's Legislative Campaign Committee.
To overcome that, he said, the Republican Party will have to field more qualified candidates willing to work harder than their Democratic opponents, he said.
While the Democrats' strategy in redrawing district boundaries may have been to spread Democratic voters into more districts, Republicans hope that also may have diluted some traditional Democratic strongholds, Brown said.
But the commission's work also has cast a cloud over Monday's opening of the two-month-long period for candidate filings. A legal challenge to the 2003 Legislature's assignment of midterm senators to the newly drawn districts is before the Montana Supreme Court.
A ruling in the case will determine which of 11 Senate districts are represented by six incumbents not facing election until 2006. The decision also could affect whether and where some other lawmakers run this year.
The court has promised an order by Feb. 3. Until then, no one can file in the 11 districts.
Democrats, who have not held the governor's office since 1988 and have been minorities in both the House and Senate since 1995, have predicted a House takeover in other elections recently, but they never came to pass.
This year, Ream is even more upbeat and believes his party has its best chance in a decade to claim at least one chamber and the governor's chair. And, he added, ''I don't think it's out of the question'' to come away with majorities in both houses and control of the executive branch.
Ream cited a recent Montana Chamber of Commerce poll showing Montanans are unhappy with state leaders, with just 29 percent believing government is on the right track.
''People in the state are looking for new leadership,'' and Democrats are the logical choice after years of GOP dominance, he said.
Brown countered that the same poll suggests otherwise, with 36 percent saying the GOP runs the state best and 29 percent favoring Democrats.
But what can't be argued is that Democrats are making up ground on Republicans. In the 1997 Legislature, the GOP held its greatest advantage, 99-51. That spread has since been whittled by 17 seats, to 82-68.
''We're feeling pretty good about where we are,'' Ream said. ''We have a lot of candidates looking forward to making positive changes in the state of Montana.''
Brown acknowledges some concern about side effects from the GOP's long-running hold on government.
''There is the ambivalence of the majority,'' he said. ''When you have been in power a while, some people take it for granted. There's a complacency that we will be able to keep control again.
''But I don't take anything for granted,'' he said. ''I'm cautiously optimistic we can hold the House and the Senate.''
That outlook is a significant switch from two years ago when Brown insisted the Democrats had no chance of wrangling a majority in either chamber.
The message Republicans will carry to voters is that the state's economy is beginning to improve and ''it's not time to jump ship and go back to where we were,'' Brown said.
Democrats, on the other hand, will stress what Ream calls ''12 years of the state going into a downward spiral'' in terms of jobs, school funding, affordable health care and deregulation of the electricity industry.
Topping the ballot will be the governor's race, where one Democrat is lined up against four Republicans so far.
Whitefish farmer Brian Schweitzer is alone in the Democratic primary, but Gallatin County Commissioner John Vincent, a former legislator and House speaker, has said he will probably get into the Democratic race early next month.
The GOP lineup is Secretary of State Bob Brown, Billings business consultant Pat Davison, and former state senators Tom Keating of Billings and Ken Miller of Laurel. Rob Natelson, a University of Montana law professor who has twice run for governor, has hinted he may become the fifth GOP contender.
Polls have shown Brown leading the Republican pack and in a neck-and-neck matchup with Schweitzer, but Davison has raised more money than Brown, and additional candidates could change everything.
Democrats believe Republican Gov. Judy Martz's low popularity among voters - hovering around 20 percent - will help them persuade voters to choose a Democratic successor. Republicans don't think that Martz, who decided against running for a second term in August, will create any such backlash.
Other races on the ballot this year include Montana's lone U.S. House seat, where Republican incumbent Denny Rehberg is seeking a third term and so far has no competition.
Attorney General Mike McGrath, a Democrat, is running for a second term without an opponent yet; Democrat John Morrison wants a second term as state auditor and has a Republican challenger; and four men - two from each party - are after the secretary of state's office being vacated by Brown.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch has a fellow Democrat and a Republican running against her.