MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
Republicans say John McCain now has a better chance in Montana's unique GOP caucus open to only about 2,000 party volunteers and officeholders after getting rid of a state chairman many in that group saw as a traitor. McCain dumped a maverick Montana Republican recently in favor of former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, much more popular with GOP insiders despite losing his re-election bid in 2006 amid suspicions over connections to a Washington D.C. lobbying scandal. The move comes as McCain has spent time and money nailing down his conservative credentials in other states. In Montana, Burns is still loved by many conservative Republican insiders who will vote in the upcoming caucus. At stake are 25 Montana delegates granted to the winner of Tuesday's caucus more than McCain got with his South Carolina win. McCain's first choice for Montana chairman, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, clearly was not a fit for Montana's GOP caucus system, prompting the abrupt change last weekend. The GOP insiders who hold a vote in the winner-take-all caucus view Bohlinger as a turncoat for running with a Democratic governor. The betrayal still stings, and Republicans were not pleased when McCain tapped Bohlinger as chairman back in December. At best it showed McCain was tone-deaf to Montana politics. At worst, it showed McCain did not care about Montana Republicans. "I think (McCain) just made mistake and didn't research the state at all," said state Sen. Gregory Barkus, who says he has not decided yet who he will vote for in Tuesday's caucus. Errol Galt, one of Montana's two members to the Republican National Committee, supports McCain and is glad the candidate ditched Bohlinger. "When he had John Bohlinger picked, I had some concerns about who he had on his campaign to represent Montana. When he went to Conrad Burns, all those concerns went away," Galt said. Republicans argue that Bohlinger isn't even a Republican, and denied him entrance last summer to the party's state convention. Bohlinger maintains he is a Republican, although the party is quick to point out he signed onto Gov. Brian Schweitzer's ticket under the Democratic banner. Bohlinger said he still supports McCain, thinks the candidate will win, and is not sore about losing his volunteer job. Bohlinger said he is not sure if McCain tried to inform him of the change because Bohlinger was in China on his honeymoon and couldn't easily be reached. "Maybe they tried to contact me, although I have no proof of that," Bohlinger said. Burns said he would not comment on any lasting harm that might have been caused by first naming Bohlinger. He said he is happy Bohlinger still supports McCain. Bohlinger said there was probably pressure to choose Burns, whom Bohlinger said he respects and has known for a long time. "The Republican party wanted to have a Washington insider like Sen. Burns to head up his campaign effort in Montana," Bohlinger said. Burns now works in Washington D. C. for Gage, a lobbying firm. The campaigns of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have all been active in Montana, courting the Republicans who hold a vote in the caucus and sending representatives to the party's winter convention. Meanwhile, McCain's campaign was making plans to replace Bohlinger as chairman. The campaign talked to Montana Republican Party Chairman Erik Iverson, also chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. Iverson said the campaign was looking for the best way to get more votes before Tuesday. Burns was announced as the new chairman to a standing ovation at the Montana Republican Party's winter convention. And McCain got headlines around Montana for making the switch. "I thought it was a pretty shrewd move on the part of the McCain campaign," Iverson said. Even though Burns lost in 2006 after taking a lot of heat for his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, most Republican insiders voted for him. And recent news that the Department of Justice dropped Burns from its Abramoff investigation only helps. "I think a lot of Republicans, if they didn't realize it before, they are saying Conrad was treated unfairly by a lot of people," Iverson said. "It may even be an enhanced stature." But some say McCain's move to bring on Burns may be too little too late. "I think it helped him a little," Barkus said. "I don't know that it will resurrect the damages that were done. That's yet to be seen."