By Ron VandenBoom
It was well after midnight before Merlin Wolery felt confident enough to declare himself the winner of Hill County's only contested race for the Montana Legislature.
The contest between Antoinette "Toni" Hagener, two-term Democratic representative from Havre, and Republican Merlin Wolery for the House District 90 seat was not decided until early Wednesday morning as results for this race were slow in coming from Hill County's Clerk and Recorder's Office.
Early returns, primarily from the area of Havre's south end and Highland Park showed a neck and neck race early in the evening with Hagener having a slight lead. As the evening wore on however, focus shifted to the rural areas of Rudyard, Inverness, and Gildford where most of Wolery's support is found.
Figures from these areas showed Wolery receiving a lopsided 166 to 46 in Rudyard Precinct 22 and a 150 to 38 in the Gildford Precinct 20.
Wolery finally declared himself the winner about 2 a.m. when returns showed him 212 votes ahead with only two precincts to go. Both were rural precincts.
Final returns indicate Wolery received 2,028 votes to Hagener's 1,698.
Wolery gave his wife, Pat, a kiss to celebrate his victory and reminded his supporters of how he had been told Hagener was an institution in Havre and he would have an up-hill battle.
Hagener could not be reached by phone Wednesday morning.
Hill County also seemed to buck the trend in state races as well.
Final tallies on the presidential race in Hill County were predictable and followed the rest of the state with Republican George Bush receiving 3,392 votes to Democrat Al Gore's 2,833.
Ralph Nader came in third in the presidential race with 270 votes.
In the Senate race in Hill County, Republican Conrad Burns went down to defeat falling substantially behind his Democratic challenger, Brian Schweitzer. Final tallies show Schweitzer with 3,686 to Burns 2,757.
Reform Party candidate, Gary Lee, who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race a week ago throwing his support to Conrad Burns, still received 125 votes in Hill County.
The governor's race also showed Hill County's strong Democratic leaning with Mark O'Keefe pulling down a 3,698 majority against Judy Martz's 2,543.
Libertarian candidate Stan Jones also managed to steal 145 votes from the Republicans and Democrats in Hill County in the governor's race.
Democrat Nancy Keenan also bucked the state trend in Hill County defeating Republican Denny Rehberg 3,587 to 2,932 in the U.S House of Representatives race.
Libertarian candidate James Tikalsky, who was in the U.S. House race, pulled down slightly fewer votes