HELENA — Former Congressman Rick Hill's entrance into the race of Republicans seeking the party's 2012 gubernatorial nomination raises questions of who will be seen as the conservative choice.
Former state Sens. Ken Miller of Laurel and Corey Stapleton of Billings are the other candidates. But Hill is likely the best known of the three after serving two terms in Congress in the late 1990s, while the others have not held statewide elected office.
Hill's campaign announcement speech on Monday advanced a fiscal conservative theme. He told reporters afterward that he has been described as "being in the tea party before the tea party was cool."
Miller, not to be outdone, made it clear he is embracing the tea party movement.
"I've been a tea party member before the tea party existed," he said in an interview Monday. "The values of the tea party are ones I fought for while I was a state senator."
Stapleton is casting himself as the candidate with specific policy ideas, and said he is avoiding describing labels to his political philosophy.
"I don't really think of myself as running for governor as anything other than the party I am," he said. "I am a Republican. I love the energy the tea party brings, especially because it engages people that may not previously have been engaged."
Of the three, Miller was most outspoken in his campaign announcement on social issues favored by Christian conservatives by making it clear he will oppose abortion by working to "protect life at all stages."
Hill's entrance Monday was attended by several key party insiders and focused on familiar territory for GOP candidates: a call for more natural resource development and less government spending. Hill made it clear that he doesn't think the business environment is as good in the state as current Gov. Brian Schweitzer says it is.
"I believe what has stopped us is a crisis of leadership," Hill said of wooing business. "We have been told that Montana doesn't need a more competitive business climate, that people relocate their business simply for the pretty view and with no regard for the heavy tax burden."
At the same time he gave kudos to Schweitzer for the role he played in getting the Otter Creek coal tracts sold to a coal company — but Hill said it was his idea when he was back in Congress to get those coal fields from the federal government in the first place.
Hill was first elected to the House in 1996 — his first bid for elective office — when longtime Democratic Rep. Pat Williams retired. Hill was re-elected in 1998, but he didn't run as expected at the time for a third term due to an eye condition. He has since undergone surgery and said Monday that the problem is fixed and no longer an issue.
Term limits prevent Schweitzer from running again.
So far no Democrats have formally announced plans for the office, although Attorney General Steve Bullock is clearly leaving the option open by raising money in a way that allows him to spend it either in a re-election bid or a run at the governor's office.