BILLINGS — Even as they crisscross the state to rally support, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Congressman Denny Rehberg can't get away from the constant barrage of attack ads that have come to define one of the nation's most contentious Senate races.
Both candidates say they feel the weight of the constant blitz of negative advertisements, and it's clear that each day has become a constant grind.
During recent campaign stops in Billings, Tester felt he first had to apologize to his Democratic supporters before moving on with what were essentially political pep rallies.
"If you watch any TV, you may have seen an ad or two about this election," Tester quipped in a speech to the Planned Parenthood luncheon.
"I am sorry about that," he said. "And it is probably only going to get worse."
Rehberg also has acknowledged the ads on the campaign trail, and the Republican has been riled up by one attack, in particular, which portrays him as opposing help for wounded and amputee veterans. He has blasted the commercial as a mischaracterization of his values, saying at a recent rally, "Shame on Democrats for trying to make an issue of this."
The Senate battle has been targeted by political groups across the nation, identified as one of the few campaigns that will determine which party controls the chamber in 2013. Money and attack ads from these outside organizations — including super PACS, which can spend unlimited amounts to campaign independently — have bombarded the state.
To wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, the GOP needs a net gain of four seats — three if Republican Mitt Romney takes the White House, because his vice president could break tie votes. Republican strategists have honed in on Montana as well as Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin as their best chances for pickups.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made it clear that it considers Montana as a top priority. The conservative group, opposed to many of the Obama administration's policies, has been blasting Tester for more than a year, spending millions on advertising.
The chamber's national political director, Rob Engstrom, said the messaging is "moving public opinion" and promised to be aggressively involved until Election Day with "serious ad buys."
Tester has a lead over Rehberg in campaign cash, $3.6 million to $2.7 million on hand according to the most recent reports, but he believes his rival has a large lead in outside help from the independent groups.
As proof, the incumbent points to another $600,000 weekly television advertising buy from a super PAC run by former President George W. Bush's longtime political counselor Karl Rove. The political action committee Crossroads GPS has been running such ads since last year.
Both sides expect that the race will hard fought and competitive right up until the election.
"It doesn't matter what the polls say," Tester said. "It's going to be close."
A key asset for Tester is his everyman appeal, which propelled him to the 2006 upset over former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
Tester's campaign ads constantly remind voters he still works his own Big Sandy farm and eats his own Montana beef. On the road, he prefers Taco John's and diet Dr Pepper.
On the campaign trail with Tester in Billings, it becomes apparent the Democrat is not a political strategist, as he wonders whether anyone believes the negative TV ads aimed against him. He says he has no idea if his campaign's latest attack on Rehberg for once being a lobbyist will be effective — but Tester defends it as fair given his opponent's attacks against him for raising money from lobbyists.
"He is accusing me of this, and he is more of it than I am," Tester said of associations with lobbyists. "If he is pointing a finger at me, there are three pointing back at him."
Tester's strategy to win is multifaceted.
He points to a long list of goals and policy successes, such as his work to improve veterans' health care facilities. He also portrays Rehberg as an unaccomplished lackey for extreme House GOP ideologues, telling the Planned Parenthood supporters they risk getting Republican "war on women" policies that cut funding to their health care clinics.
The main Rehberg campaign strategy remains far simpler: A vote for Tester is a vote for Obama administration policies, which Rehberg says are bad for small business and regular Montanans alike.
"He is a farmer from Big Sandy, yeah," Rehberg told his supporters at a campaign stop earlier this month in Helena with the Chamber of Commerce. "But he is supporting Barack Obama from Chicago."
Despite attempts, The Associated Press has so far been unable to spend a day travelling with Rehberg, as it did with Tester.
When both candidates meet with friends, it is clear they have one thing in common: Both feel unfairly and personally persecuted by the onslaught of attacks.
There are some they try to laugh off. For instance, one commercial uses twin sisters to argue Tester and Obama are also twins.
"It is just too bizarre," Tester said.
Likewise, Rehberg has said he got a chuckle out of an ad showing an early-1970s photo of him in his high school gymnastics uniform.
But the cacophony of attacks is also helping make things tense.
Rehberg was recently seen apparently giving the middle finger — very fleetingly — to an opposition tracker videotaping him. The resulting dustup forced the Rehberg campaign to argue that a close look at the shaky video shows the congressman is scratching his head.
Both sides employ the trackers, young campaign workers who follow the opposition candidate and sometimes pepper them with questions meant to antagonize.
Tester, who long ago lost fingers on his left hand in a farm accident, has felt frustrated as well. Has he ever felt like flipping off the GOP trackers who tail him?
"Maybe I've been doing it all along," Tester said, laughing. "I am digitally challenged."