The Republican Party's handpicked candidate to challenge Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in November is struggling to win the GOP nomination. Montana Lt. Gov. Allen Kolstad, who had been urged to run by President Bush, Vice President Quayle and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) -- after the party had failed to persuade three other top state officials to run -- held a narrow lead going into Tuesday's primary over his nearest rival, Bruce Vorhauer, the inventor of the contraceptive sponge.

A newspaper poll last week showed Kolstad with 30 percent support; Vorhauer had 27 percent. State Sen. Bill Farrell had 9 percent, businessman John Domenech had 7 percent, and 27 percent of those polled were undecided.

"Those numbers reflect that Kolstad has not had the money or the ability to get his message out," said a national GOP official who asked not to be identified. Vorhauer, a millionaire, advertised early on television and ran full-page color newspaper ads, outspending Kolstad 2 to 1.

"Voters in Montana want jobs created," the official said. "Here's a candidate with a lot of money saying what he will do, saying all the right words and has the money to get the message across. It's no surprise to us that he closed the gap on Kolstad."

The Republican predicted that Kolstad will win because of strong rural support and because he is better known to voters.

"The bottom line is we support the winner," said Wendy DeMocker of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We got involved in recruitment because we believe Baucus is vulnerable, and that hasn't changed."

Vorhauer, an abortion-rights supporter, got a surprise endorsement from Suzanne Pennypacker Morris, a former president of Montana Right to Life. "Bruce Vorhauer is one of the few people who has actually worked to resolve the abortion dilemma," Morris said.

But the Montana Right to Life Political Action Committee feels differently. It distributed 150,000 brochures last week urging Montanans to support Kolstad, who opposes abortion in most cases, and to reject "pro-abortion extremists" like Vorhauer.