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

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.

If anything, Obama may be heading the other way. He recently embraced a compromise bill on warrantless wiretapping that would effectively offer legal immunity to telecommunications companies that helped spy on customers. In 2006, after expressing misgivings, he voted for the Patriot Act's reauthorization, saying it was a marked improvement over the original bill of 2001. Obama voted for an emergency spending bill that included creating the Real ID, even though he said he opposed the identification card as an unfunded mandate. Support for the Real ID is in line with law-and-order voters.

Weaver said Westerners chafing at Bush-era intrusions are voters who seek dramatic change, and they are apt to side with Obama, even with his security votes.

But Obama appears to be tempering his iconoclastic streak in other ways as he enters the general-election race. Last fall, when Time magazine reporters asked him why he did not wear a flag on his lapel, like other politicians, Obama replied, "You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we're talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest."

"Instead," he said, "I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism."

For much of this week, he has been sporting that pin, and Friday his family waved little American flags as he took in an old-fashioned parade of antique cars, fire engines, floats with beauty queens, and line dancers on a flatbed truck.

Sasha and Malia wore the pink cowboy hats that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had given them for Malia's birthday. A day after he stirred controversy by suggesting he may be willing to slow a withdrawal from Iraq after consultations with field commanders, the closest Obama got to that issue was the Shriners' Bagdad Burikka Patrol, with its mini cars and micro motorcycles.

"What makes this country great is not the size of our military, not the size of the economy, not the big buildings we have," Obama said. "What makes this country great is its people."

Obama's statements on Iraq on Thursday did not appear to cause much of a stir, even among Montanans who said they want the war to end. "He'll do what's pragmatic," said Mary Kay Burk, a Butte Democrat whose Republican husband plans to vote for Obama. "So it'll take longer than people think," she said with a shrug.

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