HELENA — Republican hopefuls for governor are increasing their efforts to carve out conservative ground from perceived front-runner Rick Hill with less than two months until the GOP primary.
Hill, a former congressman and fixture in Republican Party politics who has stockpiled plenty of endorsements, maintains a solid fundraising edge in the seven-way primary. Hill's campaign labeled recent criticisms as "desperate" attempts to catch him.
Former state senator Ken Miller of Laurel is trying to parlay his social conservative base by running to Hill's right. But his attacks on Hill so far have less to do with big issue differences, and more to do with style.
He accuses Hill of being a "Washington, D.C., insider," and former insurance executive who spends time vacationing out of state. Miller also accuses Hill of being too soft on wolves with a plan that called for management in the western part of the state. Miller instead calls for a shoot-on-sight no tolerance zone throughout the state.
Miller is hoping GOP primary voters compare the candidates' track records in office closely, although he acknowledged such research would be difficult. Miller offered as some proof that Hill is more moderate a 1998 congressional vote against one of the four Bill Clinton articles of impeachment, a piece of the overall case having to do with abuse of power that many Republicans at the time opposed.
"Do we want more Washington, D.C., mentality, or do we want Montana grass-roots leadership?" asked Miller, who closed his furniture store in Laurel last year so he could focus on the race.
The Hill campaign called the attack a "desperate act from a campaign that hasn't been able to generate any support to speak of."
"Everyone in this race professes to be a conservative, and you can look at Rick's 88 percent lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union to see that he is conservative," said Hill spokesman Brock Lowrance. "The distinction in this campaign is leadership. There is no doubt about Rick's record as a leader in the private sector, as a legislator, and in the executive branch."
Lowrance accused Miller of mismanaging the Montana Republican Party when he was chairman from 2001-2003.
Others in the race have also been increasing their attempts to appeal to the conservative wing of the GOP, all trying to capitalize on lingering tea party enthusiasm, with pressure mounting to surpass Hill.
Bob Fanning, who struggled to secure a running mate and has so far not raised much money, has attacked Hill for votes in the 1990s that Fanning alleges helped lead to the 2008 financial crisis.
And a conservative blogger and activist who initially tried to assist Fanning recently decided to endorse former Washington, D.C., consultant Neil Livingstone. Livingstone has penned colorful tales of his counterterrorism work, and recently moved back to the state to run for the office.
When Livingstone first launched his campaign last year, he took the unique step in current GOP politics of calling for increased spending on schools and funding for the Healthy Montana Kids program that the Republican-led legislature has rejected. Despite that, and past Livingstone campaign donations to some Democrats, he was able to gain the backing last week of ardent conservative writer Ed Berry.
On the Democratic side, Attorney General Steve Bullock is coasting toward an easy primary and stockpiling money for the eventual GOP challenger.