Elephants in the room

President Obama stood before the nation Tuesday night, Jan. 24, in a red dotted tie. He vowed to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. He vowed to increase high school graduation rates and train two million Americans in skills demanded by the job market now. He vowed to open 75 percent of the nation's offshore oil and gas holdings, to tax multinational corporations and build a lasting partnership with Afghanistan.

At Missoula's Finn and Porter, three people watched the president's speech. A dozen members of the Missoula Republican Party sat not 100 yards away, behind the closed door of the Canyon banquet hall, busying themselves with their monthly meeting. The State of the Union slipped by unnoticed.

The GOP had a lot on its plate, including chicken cordon bleu. Sen. Bob Lake of Hamilton was set to give a speech. He's running for Montana's Public Service Commission this year against incumbent Missoula Democrat Gail Gutsche.

There's plenty for the Republicans to talk about. The presidential primary race has had more debates than M*A*S*H had seasons. The party's list of gubernatorial hopefuls in Montana is endless. Who has weight around here?

"I feel like I could support any of the [presidential] candidates who are up," says Jim Sadler, a longtime Missoula school board trustee who himself is up for re-election this year. "Right now, I'm kind of favoring Gingrich." Sadler's pick is a popular choice. Newt has "more fire," Bill Buseman says.

On the gubernatorial side, Rick Hill's a clear favorite. In fact, Sheila Cook, who works on Hill's local campaign, says Missoula has been Hill's second strongest source of financial support. "He's got a lot more name recognition than the others," Cook says.

The usual GOP concerns don't seem important this time around. Republican candidate Rick Santorum, for example, seemed too focused on social topics like gay marriage while locals care more about jobs, money and the deficit. Social issues are "so yesterday," Sadler says.

As are personal flaws. In the end, Sadler says, he just wants "a fully vetted nominee whose warts and scandals are already all known." After all, he says, "Clinton got re-elected."

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