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Montana's Tester Squeaks by GOP Rival

By MARY CLARE JALONICK
The Associated Press
Thursday, November 9, 2006; 4:40 AM

HELENA, Mont. -- Democrat Jon Tester ran as an outsider to what he called Washington's "culture of corruption" _ but got a boost from opposition to the war in Iraq and his Republican opponent's gaffe-laden campaign.

The 50-year-old organic farmer and state Senate president rode that populist horse all the way to a Senate seat by ousting Republican Sen. Conrad Burns by a wafer-thin margin.

"It is absolutely, critically important that we change the direction of the country," Tester said Wednesday. "Now is the time to come together and put politics aside."

Tester's win _ and fellow Democrat Jim Webb's victory in Virginia Wednesday _ gave the Democrats the 51 Senate seats they need to control the chamber.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Tester had 198,032 votes, or 49.1 percent, to Burns' 194,904 votes, or 48.3 percent. If the margin of victory ends up within half of a percentage point _ roughly 2,000 votes _ Burns could request a recount.

Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, said officials do not expect that to happen. "The margin appears to be too broad," he said.

Burns did not immediately concede. In a statement Wednesday, he said Tester ran a good race and has the lead "but it is extremely close."

"The state of Montana has a process in place, and it is our obligation to see it through," Burns said. "There is no need to rush to a conclusion when the votes are this close."

Burns, 71, had not helped his own cause, with close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and verbal gaffes that included cursing at a firefighting crew in a state that sees thousands of acres burn every summer.

Ballot-counting problems delayed results of the race by about seven hours, keeping the nation in suspense. Duane Winslow, election administrator for Montana's most populous area, Yellowstone County, said he made a computer error while tabulating absentee ballots that required officials to start the process over.

The campaign was bitter and expensive from the start.

Tester portrayed himself as a Western moderate who owns guns, opposes gay marriage and has a libertarian's suspicion of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act.

He hammered Burns over his ties to Abramoff. Burns was a top recipient of campaign contributions from Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to corruption. Burns has since returned or donated about $150,000, but maintained he did nothing wrong and was not influenced by the lobbyist.

Burns was first elected in 1988 as a folksy, backslapping outsider, but this time it was Tester playing the outsider role.

Tester surprised many here in June when he beat a better-financed and better-known Democrat in the primary. Later he relied on rallies with the state's popular governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer, and Sen. Max Baucus.

Burns tried to paint Tester as a liberal who wants to raise taxes and "cut and run" from Iraq, and focused on his ability as a veteran senator to bring in federal money.

The liberal tag didn't seem to stick with many, as Tester sports scuffed cowboy boots, the now-famous flattop haircut, and a big belly to go along with a hand missing three fingers to an old accident with a meat grinder.

In the last two weeks of the campaign, Burns was joined on the trail by a number of GOP luminaries _ most notably President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney _ hoping their appearances in Montana would help sway undecided voters.

Tester resisted most help from his national party, saying he wanted to run the campaign his way _ from Montana. The campaigns of Burns and Tester spent more than $12 million, more money than in any previous Montana election.

© 2006 The Associated Press