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If Leo would win, I'm headed for Canada

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Feb 14, 2005
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least 4 Democrats consider race against Burns
Gazette State Bureau

HELENA- At least four Democrats are being considered or being mentioned as possible candidates next year for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.

They are:

Daniel Kemmis of Missoula, an attorney and former Montana House speaker who heads the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a research think tank at the University of Montana.

John Morrison of Helena, an attorney who was re-elected as state auditor in November and serves as Montana's insurance and securities commissioner.

Leo McDonnell of Columbus, founder and president of R-CALF, a national cattlemen's group.

Jon Tester of Big Sandy, an organic grain farmer who is president of the Montana Senate this session.

Burns, 70, has declared he is seeking a fourth six-year Senate term in 2006.

Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said he believes Burns is vulnerable because Montanans trust the Democrats' leadership on such key issues as jobs, health care and education. He was referring to the Democrats' legislative gains and Brian Schweitzer's election as governor in 2004.

"Honestly, I think Senator Burns has been missing in action on some issues I think Montanans would want him to lead on such as Social Security,'' Martin said. "He's dancing on the fence.''

But Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, said the last Gazette State Poll in December showed Burns with the highest job approval rating of his career. President Bush and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., are both very popular in Montana, he said.

"We as Republicans have got all the advantages coming into the election,'' Denowh said. "He is a popular incumbent with fund-raising advantages. He's a man of the people, and he's real likeable with Montanans.''

Kemmis, 59, sent a letter to the Democratic Party's executive board saying he's looking at the race, but has made no decision yet to run. He said he knows there are some other good Democrats also considering it and wants to make sure the party gets the best possible candidate.

"For me, it's party a matter of having grown up idolizing Mike Mansfield and absorbing his great respect for the U.S. Senate both as a great deliberative body and as a counter balance to the executive branch when it takes a wrong turn,'' Kemmis said.

Among his attributes, Kemmis said, are having been being born and raised on a farm in Eastern Montana and retaining those roots, while having substantial experience working with the more urban side of the state.

"My real strength has been bringing different factions together to figure out what they have in common urban and rural, environmentalists and loggers,'' said Kemmis, author of several books on the role of communities. "The bridge building and problem solving that I've devoted my career to would be of value in the Senate.''

McDonnell, 52, is a political newcomer who said he's been asked by some people to consider a Senate run. He's a rancher and cattle feeder who started R-CALF, which he described as the largest national organization that represents only U.S. cattle producers, with 13,000-14,000 members in 46 different states and with 60 local and state affiliates that represent up to 80,000 other members.

"We have a strong agricultural background, we built our own business and we put four kids through public schools and they graduated from college,'' he said. "We have a strong family and good business sense and are very community oriented.''

He called himself a bipartisan Montanan.

Morrison, 43, said he is focusing first on his legislative agenda of providing affordable health insurance, consumer protection and venture capital for Montana.

"I'm concerned about what's happening in Washington,'' he said. "I think we're on the wrong track with some important issues like Social Security, health care and the deficit. I think Montanans are concerned about these things too because they've talked to me about them."

Morrison, who's written a book with his wife about some famous Montana elected officials called "Mavericks,'' said some people have encouraged him to look at running for the Senate, and he's discussed it with a number of people.

"I wouldn't rule anything out, but our focus is on our legislative work,'' he said.

Tester did not return a call Tuesday afternoon. The 48-year-old farmer is completing his second four-year term in the Senate. His name also has been mentioned prominently for the Senate by some Democrats.

He has won praise from Senate Democrats for his leadership on education, health care and jobs issues and his Senate leadership. He served as Senate minority leader in 2003.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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