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Crowded governor's field taking shape

 


HELENA — The entry of Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock into the 2012 governor's race gives a crowded Republican primary field a bigger target to aim for, and turns more attention to which GOP candidate would be the most electable in a tough general election.

With Bullock, active Democrats have someone many of them are excited to rally around. But things are not so clear on the GOP side with several viable candidates in the race — and maybe even more on the way.

AP Photo/Matthew Brown

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock laughs with a supporter as he prepares to announce his 2012 gubernatorial campaign on Wednesday in Billings.

Former GOP congressman Rick Hill shot out of the gate late last year with plenty of support from established Republicans, has easily outpaced the rest of the field in fundraising so far and even his opponents acknowledge he is the man to beat. But the party appears far from embracing a clear front-runner.

Former state Sen. Ken Miller, who recently sold his Laurel furniture store to focus on the campaign, is casting himself as the conservative with "backbone" to stand up to the federal government on issues like wolves and health care. Ardent supporters noticeable for their vibrant green t-shirts aim to collect tea party support.

Another former state senator, Corey Stapleton of Billings, said he is not ceding the tea party conservatives to Miller and aims to sweep in behind Rick Hill's collection of "institutional Republicans" to collect the main street business support.

The most unique campaign fundraising report probably comes from Neil Livingstone, who splits time between Helena and Washington D.C., where he is a security consultant and commentator. Nearly all his relatively modest total comes from East Coast business, consulting and political connections — and it remains unclear if the Montana GOP is willing to embrace someone who spent so many years out of the state.

Then there is state Sen. Jeff Essmann, another Billings Republican, who is perhaps best known for leading the Legislature's crackdown on medical marijuana. The businessman is "actively considering" the race with the encouragement of well-known GOP consultants with close ties to U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.

In a letter to Republican leaders around the state, Essmann focused on his fiscal conservative credentials needed in "serious times that will require strong and resolute leadership."

Dustin Frost, a partner in 47 North Communications and former state director for Rehberg, said he thinks Essmann would be the "heavyweight" if he gets in. Many Republicans remain undecided about the current entrants, Frost said.

"Republicans are still looking for their candidate, looking for a Republican nominee who can win back the governor's seat in November of 2012," Frost said. "They haven't concluded that that candidate is in the current announced field."

And those Republicans will be looking for someone they think can beat the likes of Bullock in a general election where Democrats will certainly be energized to hold onto a governor's office being left vacant by the departure of term-limited Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

So far, no one has kept close to Bullock and Hill in campaign cash. But the other entrants each promise future reports will show more money. Many voters still don't know the candidates at all, and buying statewide name recognition isn't cheap, so all agree more money will be needed to win.

Miller says there are a lot of undecided primary voters, and believes that works in his favor and tarnishes Hill's perceived advantage as a former statewide candidate in the 1990s when he served two terms in Congress. Miller thinks the primary battle is a "two-man race" between Hill and him.

Stapleton also portrays it as a battle between Hill and him. The former Navy officer said he offers the GOP a better chance to win in a general election, an issue he said GOP voters will be focused on after losing all of the state offices from governor on down to the Democrats.

"Now that Republicans have been in the wilderness, we are going to be more sensitive to that," Stapleton said.

Hill, who left the state's lone seat in Congress due to an eyesight issue he says has since been corrected, agrees Bullock's entrance changes things a bit.

"With Steve entering the race I think it is going to focus Republicans on who is going to run the strongest campaign to win," said Hill.

Hill, returning to statewide politics after a decade, said his background offers the best matchup against a well-known Democrat in a tough general election. And he doesn't mind looking ahead to a battle with Bullock.

"I think Montanans are going to have an opportunity for clear contrast in this election," Hill said. "I am excited about that notion, and I think most Montanans are excited about the notion they are going to have a clear choice."

More Democrats could get into the race, too, although Bullock is working hard to tie up early support. And the other Democrat in the race, state Sen. Larry Jent of Bozemen, is not ceding defeat although he is far behind in the money race.

Voters, though, are hardly paying attention at this point and a lot of time remains until June 2012 primary — let alone the November 2012 general election.

University of Montana political scientists Jeffrey Greene says both sides are "still sorting out who is going to be the lead candidate."

"My own humble opinion, and my professional opinion, is that it is too early to say much now," Greene said.

 

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