In Montana on the Fourth, a Barometer of Obama's Chances

Democratic candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, watch a Fourth of July parade with daughters Malia, right, and Sasha in Butte, Mont.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, watch a Fourth of July parade with daughters Malia, right, and Sasha in Butte, Mont. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 5, 2008

BUTTE, Mont., July 4 -- With Sen. John McCain taking the holiday off, Sen. Barack Obama wrapped up a week-long swing through Republican America swathed in the pageantry of a Fourth of July parade and family picnic, trying to mesh his theme of activist change with an emphasis on family and patriotism.

A politician who last fall shunned wearing an American flag lapel pin as a "substitute for . . . true patriotism" could hardly avoid such trappings Friday. His elder daughter, Malia, turned 10, but he also flew in his wife, Michelle; daughter Sasha, 7; and his half sister's family of three for the festivities.

"Are we going to seize this moment?" Obama asked about 1,500 Montanans gathered under a strong summer sun in this scrappy mining town. "Are we going to declare our independence from special interests, the oil companies and the gas companies that are preventing us from creating the kind of energy policy that will save our environment, and free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil by investing on solar and wind and biodiesel? That's the kind of independence we need to declare today."

Some Republicans have dismissed Obama's "values" tour as more of a "head fake" than a real foray into GOP territories he thinks he can win in November. President Bush won 59 percent of the vote in Montana in 2004, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a first-term Democrat, acknowledged the difficulties in his state. Bill Clinton won it in 1992 with only 38 percent of the vote, thanks to independent Ross Perot's 26 percent. No Democrat has reached 50 percent since Lyndon B. Johnson and the landslide of 1964.

"I hope Bob Barr does well," Schweitzer joked, referring to the iconoclastic former Republican running on the Libertarian ticket.

Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, quoted Schweitzer, who said in May that Obama's impediment to winning Montana boiled down to one word: guns. "Barack Obama is proving himself to be a typical politician," Conant said. "It's not clear why he would perform any better than any of the other Democrats before him."

But campaign aides, Schweitzer, Butte Democrats and even some Republicans say Obama can win here, a state that elected a Democratic governor in 2004 and a new Democratic senator in 2006.

"People are sick and tired of the status quo here," said Erik C. Nylund, president of Montana's letter carriers union, who insisted that a membership usually divided evenly between both parties is leaning toward Obama.

"There's a hurricane force out there in this country of people who say, 'We want change,' " said John Weaver, a former top adviser to McCain. "And if we're not careful, the Democrats might have the kind of year we had in 1980," when a Republican wave swept out Democratic Senate mainstays in the West, such as Frank Church of Idaho, George McGovern of South Dakota and Warren G. Magnuson of Washington.

The political currents of the Mountain West will not be easy to navigate. The blend of economic activism and social libertarianism that propelled Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to victory creates conflicting demands for Obama, who is trying to maintain the liberal activist base that won him the Democratic nomination and also appeal to disaffected Republicans and independents.

Schweitzer said part of his success has stemmed from taking stands against some of the intrusive homeland security measures popular with the "security moms" who populate the East and Midwest swing suburbs. He campaigned in favor of repealing the USA Patriot Act, enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he championed a Montana measure rejecting the Real ID, a federal identification card designed to help track down terrorists and illegal immigrants.

"It is not the American way to have neighbor spy on neighbor," Schweitzer said.

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