By Ron VandenBoom
Gary Lee, the Reform Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, announced Friday that he was dropping out of the race for the U.S. Senate and throwing his support behind Sen. Conrad Burns.
Lee stopped in Havre Saturday to attend the debate between Democratic candidate Nancy Keenan and Republican candidate Denny Rehberg and took a few minutes out to explain his decision.
After the debate, Lee said recent polls showing a neck and neck race between Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and Democratic challenger Brian Schweitzer was the straw that broke the camel's back in reaching his decision to drop out of the race.
"It was mainly the poll that showed Schweitzer in the mid 40s," Lee said.
The Lee Newspaper poll released Thursday, showed Schweitzer had managed to cut the incumbents senator's lead to a 1 point statistical dead heat at 45 percent for Burns and 44 percent for Schweitzer.
Lee, who entered the race in August, said the 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote he believes he would have received in parts of the Flathead, Missoula, and Yellowstone areas of Montana will halt the recent rise in Schweitzer's numbers.
"I think you're going to see Burns's down turn stop and it will start going up a little bit," Lee said.
Schweitzer disagrees with Lee. Asked Sunday during a stop in Havre whether he felt Lee's departure from the race would have any impact on the outcome Schweitzer said "no."
"He got into the race late and only had about one percent of the vote," Schweitzer said. "The few votes he represented won't have any affect."
Lee said he had been busier since announcing his decision to drop out of the race than he was prior to the announcement.
"Now I'm spending a lot more time flying around the state and spending a lot more time explaining what I've done," he said.
Lee said he expects to be in Missoula Tuesday to meet Sen. John McCain and then, also starting tomorrow, he would start hitting the talk show circuit. In November, Lee said, he will make an official push to start his campaign against incumbent Sen. Max Baucus.
Lee said he would also like to see, and would work towards, forming a coalition of third parties in Montana to better mount an attack on Baucus.
Lee said he would like to see the Libertarian Party, Constitution Party and the Reform Party unite to defeat Baucus.
He said he would also hope the third parties would be allowed better access to the debate process in Montana and for that matter around the country.
"It would only take some minor legislation to turn that around," he said.
Lee said a lot of people have been disenfranchised by the election process and the way the two major parties exclude third party competition.
This election year, Lee said, is going to be one of the closest in a long time.
"Close enough to where they may be counting for a long time," he said. "It's very important that everybody get out and vote."