Correction to This Article
An April 24 article about the U.S. Senate race in Montana misidentified a political scientist at Montana State University in Billings. He is Craig Wilson, not Craig Harris. The article also said that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) accepted $150,000 from Jack Abramoff that was later returned. Most of that money came from Abramoff's lobbying team and its clients rather than from Abramoff directly.

Burns May Be Bouncing Back

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006

BILLINGS, Mont. -- The Republican primary debate was over, and three challengers had barely laid a glove on Sen. Conrad Burns.

No one mentioned the $150,000 he accepted from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and later returned. No one brought up the $3 million federal grant secured by a wealthy Indian tribe -- and Abramoff client -- after Burns pressured the Interior Department. No one quoted Abramoff telling Vanity Fair that he and his clients had received "every appropriation we wanted" from a subcommittee chaired by Burns.

Only one question during Friday's debate even mentioned Abramoff, whose web of illegal lobbying has spawned the largest congressional scandal in years. And Burns pugnaciously dismissed it, saying, "If you want to know something about the Abramoff deal, you got to ask the Democrats."

Polls here suggest that Burns, 71, a three-term incumbent who has been targeted by the Democrats as one of the most beatable Republicans in the Senate, may be bouncing back from the pounding he took late last year after the publication of several articles detailing his ties to Abramoff.

For a while after the stories broke, Burns essentially hunkered down, offering little response to the allegations while his political fortunes flagged. Republican strategists in Washington believe Burns stayed silent for too long. In the past three months, however, his campaign has spent heavily on radio and television ads that attack Democrats for attacking him. In a current ad, Burns tells Montana voters that "the daily partisan assault is an assault on you and what you stand for."

After the debate, Burns was asked about the new poll numbers, which show him tied with or narrowly trailing his two most likely Democratic opponents. He is expected to win handily in the Republican primary.

"Never lose faith in the people," he said with a tight smile.

Would he answer any questions about Abramoff?

"No!" Burns said, with a tight smile.

For all his bravado, Burns remains in trouble, especially in a state that generally tilts to the Republicans. But his experience also suggests the challenge that Democrats around the country will have in turning this year's scandals into tangible gains at the polls.

On morning of the debate that barely mentioned Abramoff, in a Denny's out on the interstate south of Billings, Rick and Alice Hill of Miles City, Mont., were eating pancakes and discussing politicians who may or may not be crooks.

"As far as this Abramoff deal goes, don't you think all of these lobbyists expect something in return for the money they give the politicians, be it Burns or whatever?" asked Rick Hill, 62, a retired railroad conductor who said he is a Democrat, that he voted for Burns before and that he will probably do so again.

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