The gloves didn’t exactly come off following last week’s primary election because incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and Democratic candidate Jon Tester never seemed to bother putting them on. Fewer than 20 minutes after Tester’s victory, and a full 154 days away from the 2006 midterm election, Burns began baiting Tester on issues well-suited to facile sloganeering like gay marriage, flag burning and the so-called death tax by issuing a press release wondering, “How would newly minted Democrat nominee Jon Tester vote” on Constitutional amendments to define marriage as between a man and a woman and to ban flag burning.

Burns got an assist from National Republican Senatorial Committee chairwoman Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who followed Burns, trotting out the contention that Tester is out of touch with Montana values. Dole—who moved to Washington, D.C., in 1966—says Tester is, “a Democrat puppet of national liberal special interest groups who does not share the mainstream values of Montanans.” We’re pretty sure that a lifelong farmer and rancher from Big Sandy knows a thing or two more about Montana values than a Harvard-educated lawyer and perpetual politico. But thanks anyway, Liddy.

As for the content of Burns’ opening missive, it’s interesting—though not surprising—that he and his Republican strike force would invoke the estate tax in hopes of painting Tester as an out-of-touch liberal while branding Burns as a populist. The fact is that, according to tax analyst Judy Xanthopoulos, Ph.D., of Quantria Strategies, a complete repeal of the estate tax, like the one Burns and his Democratic colleague Sen. Max Baucus voted in support of last week, would benefit about 25 Montana families each year—the richest 25, with estates valued at an average of $12.4 million.

But for all his posturing about Montana values, Burns didn’t even bother to show for the long-scheduled debate at the June 10 Montana Newspaper Association’s annual convention in Missoula, opting to play golf at a political fundraiser in Virginia instead. When given an invitation to spar with Tester and Libertarian candidate Stan Jones on issues important to Montanans—in front of a captive audience of news men and women, no less—Burns chose to stay in the Beltway area and raise more money for his already bloated campaign war chest instead.

For someone trying to position himself as in-line with the mainstream values of Montana voters, it’s those in Washington, D.C., who seem to be getting the lion’s share of Burns’ attention these days.

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