Word was you’d better get to the 1,200-seat Mother Lode Theatre early if you expected to get in for the debate between Sen. Conrad Burns and Jon Tester in Butte.

Rumors abounded that Burns supporters would be bussed to Butte and that things would get ugly—even uglier than they got in Hamilton a couple weeks ago. Two armed Butte-Silver Bow law enforcement officers were on hand to keep the peace at a venue long known for drama.

Is this what Montana politics have come to?

Not yet. Burns’ supporters failed to fill the seats and the officers turned out to be little more than two of the better dressed of the 1,000 or so in attendance. Most of the crowd was wearing campaign T-shirts, the overwhelming majority in Tester yellow.

One thing was clear: The Mining City remains a Democratic stronghold, despite the fact that its Republican economy takes in approximately $20 million a year in Burns-brokered appropriations. Don’t forget that while Butte was home to integrity-rich former senators Mike Mansfield and Burton K. Wheeler, it also produced William A. Clark, whose political image was far more corrupt than Burns has ever been accused of. A lot of perfectly respectable folk in Butte fail to bat an eye at the allegations facing Burns.

The question of Burns’ relationship to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff—one that was never asked in the fluff-filled Whitefish or Hamilton debates—was hurled at the senator early, only to be whiffed miserably.

“Chaff” was Burns’ rebuttal to the Tester-read record alleging that the junior senator gave Abramoff every appropriation he ever asked for. “These are baseless allegations in a negative campaign…Politics in its worst light,” Burns went on to say.

Burns clearly doesn’t like it when the light shines on his record too brightly.

Even so, there remains a question we need to ask: Is a vote for Jon Tester truly going to amount to a better political world for Montanans?

Tester shone stronger than Burns, and stood behind his own ideals on all accounts. Burns was elusive, offering little more than innuendos in Bush-hyped fear, derisive partisanship and an unabashed comparison of such values to freedom. Burns even seemed to catch Tester off guard, calling attention to his refusal to take the National Political Awareness Test (NPAT), a survey whose results are intended to educate voters on candidates’ positions.

It’s true. With Tester, we’ve got little but his state senate record, his word and his handshake to go on. In today’s Washington, D.C., where Burns has clearly thrived, you’ve got to ask: Will that be enough?

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