SUSAN GALLAGHER Associated Press Writer MISSOULA
Presidential hopeful John Edwards said Democrats need someone like him, “somebody who grew up in rural America and has a strong connection with states like” Montana, to carry the traditionally conservative Rocky Mountain West in next year’s election. Edwards made his remarks Tuesday in a brief interview following an appearance at the University of Montana, where he spoke to a crowd of about 600 people gathered in a campus ballroom. It was Montana’s first visit by a candidate seeking the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination. During his speech, Edwards drew cheers on many of hi s point s, particularly those on college funding and environmental policy. He touted his “college for everyone” proposal that he says will ensure higher education for every qualified person willing to make a work commitment of 10 hours a week. He called for new investments in alternative energy, such as wind power, and said U.S. factories should use union labor to build the world’s most fuel efficient cars. “We need a president of the United States who will ask Americans to be patriotic about something other than the war,” Edwards said. He told the campus crowd that “the power and the strength in America is in places just like this,” adding it was young people willing to speak out who started the movement against the war in Vietnam. Following the event, Edwards was headed to a $500-per-person fundraiser at a Missoula residence before leaving for California late Tuesday. Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said the Edwards visit could lead to others by the rest of the Democratic field eyeing the White House. “We are remote, we are hard to get to, but we can be on the way to California and Seat t le,” Farrel l said. “The importance of the West in our national Democratic politics is growing.” He said the region’s political profile is rising with events such as Democratic victories in U.S. Senate races last year in Montana and Colorado, Democrat Gary Trauner’s razor-thin loss to Republican incumbent Barbara Cubin in Wyoming’s U.S. House race and the growing prominence of people such as Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s first Democratic governor in 20 years. Democrats on the national stage must seize the opportunity to campaign in the Rocky Mountain states because if they do not, then people recently drawn to the party may become “disheartened and return to old habits, old Republican habits,” Farrell said. Montana Republican Party executive Chris Wilcox dismissed the Edwards visit, saying the candidate was not coming “to hear what Montanans have to say about the issues,” but merely planned a Montana pit stop to raise money that will be spent elsewhere. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited Montana in June. A June poll conducted for the Lee Newspapers of Montana found Montana voters most supportive of Arizona Republ i can John McCain as a presidential candidate, and least supportive of New York Democrat Hillary Clinton. Edwards ranked 10th among the 13 people about whom 625 registered Montana voters were questioned in the telephone poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C.