Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), once considered by the GOP among the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year, is looking anything but vulnerable these days. A poll published last week in several Montana newspapers showed the two-term senator leading his Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Allen Kolstad, 58 to 31 percent.

With his big lead, Baucus has been attracting conservative support, and his campaign has been enthusiastically promoting it.

Advertisements of Baucus's endorsement by Pete Dunbar, a former U.S. attorney for Montana who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, have run in newspapers throughout the state. Dunbar, a conservative Republican, said he was impressed by Baucus's accomplishments in law enforcement and anti-drug legislation. He sent a three-page letter to all Montana law enforcement officials outlining his support for the Democrat.

Baucus's campaign also is touting his endorsement by the National Rifle Association. In a letter to its 30,000 Montana members, the NRA called Baucus "an absolute rock for us and for you every day of his 16 years of congressional service."

The Kolstad campaign tried to counter the Dunbar endorsement with one of its own: Retired rear admiral Robert Spiro Jr., a Democrat and a defense official during President Jimmy Carter's administration, endorsed Kolstad and blasted Baucus's "anti-defense" record.

But it was Kolstad's confusion over missile systems that attracted the most attention. Kolstad said it appeared the rail-garrison MX would win its funding battle with the Midgetman missile and implied he was glad. "I screwed up," Kolstad later told reporters. What he meant to say was that signs are favorable for the Midgetman, tentatively planned for location at Montana's only Air Force base.

A Kolstad spokesman dismissed the NRA endorsement as "a Washington thing."