BILLINGS, Mont. — Candidates in Montana's three-way battle to fill the state's sole U.S. House seat are hoping a late push for the public's attention and an upcoming televised debate will help cut through the noise of other races dominating the airwaves.
Republican businessman Steve Daines of Bozeman, Democratic state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings and Libertarian restaurant consultant Dave Kaiser of Victor are vying to replace Republican Denny Rehberg.
With only six weeks until the election, political analysts give Daines the inside edge, based largely on indications showing Montana's electorate this year is leaning heavily toward the GOP and the fact that Daines is pummeling Gillan in the scramble for campaign cash.
A new poll commissioned by Lee Newspapers of Montana shows Daines with an 8-point edge over Gillan with 14 percent of voters undecided.
But Democrats say they are highly motivated to take back a seat they lost back in 1996, when former Rep. Pat Williams chose not to run after nine terms in office. And analysts say Gillan could get a boost as a well-known lawmaker from Montana's most populous city.
Rehberg passed up a bid for a seventh term to challenge incumbent Democrat Jon Tester for the U.S. Senate. As one of a handful of campaigns across the nation that could determine who controls the Senate, the Tester-Rehberg race has drawn millions of dollars for television and radio ads that have saturated the airwaves for months.
A televised debate in the House race scheduled for Tuesday gives the candidates a chance to take directly to voters their sharply divergent views on issues including the economy, health care and tax reform.
Gillan, who is term-limited after eight years in the state Senate and is a workforce development coordinator for Montana State University-Billings, wants to fix the federal budget crisis by reinstating higher taxes for the wealthy and using targeted cuts to reduce spending.
She says the key to creating more jobs is strengthening education, supporting small businesses and tapping into Montana's renewable energy potential.
"I have a proven track record; you can't buy one," Gillan said. "Everyone says they are going to do something. But I'm interested in actually solving the problem."
Daines is a former executive at Bozeman company RightNow Technologies and an unsuccessful 2008 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. He started off his campaign running against Tester, but switched to the House race after Rehberg announced his Senate bid.
He said he wants to reduce the size of the federal government, repeal the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act and foster development of Montana's natural resources. Tax increases, he adds, are off the table.
"The main problem we have is one of spending, not revenue," Daines said. "Just as in our private lives, we need to do more with less."
Kaiser acknowledged he's a long-shot for victory but said he's hoping that in an era of Twitter, email and Facebook, an unconventional campaign can prevail. He described himself as a "common-sense libertarian" who sees a role for government but thinks the major parties are no longer effective.
The poll last week by Mason Dixon Polling & Research of Washington, D.C., showed that 46 percent of voters plan to cast ballots for Daines while 38 percent pick Gillan, and 2 percent support Kaiser.
The phone survey of 625 registered Montana voters who say they're likely to vote had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Gillan captured her party's nomination in June, after emerging from a seven-person field with 31 percent of votes tallied — well ahead of her closest competitor.
Daines cruised to an easy victory over two lesser-known contenders. His 71 percent of the vote translated into almost 83,000 ballots. That was more than the entire Democratic field combined.
As evidence the race could go either way, Gillan's campaign has been trumpeting a voter survey earlier this month in which a Democratic-leaning firm gave Daines only a narrow lead. Gillan supporters seized on the results to declare the race a "toss-up."
Daines said his campaign has done its own polling that indicates he enjoys a more sizable lead.
University of Montana political science professor Jeffrey Green said Daines' three-to-one money advantage gives him the a better chance to break through the din of advertisements from the Tester-Rehberg race, expected to become the most expensive election in the state's history.
"It's difficult for both of them to get their message out," Green said. "Even though it requires less money to get elected from Montana, you've still got to have a good deal of money to play the game."
Daines' campaign has said it plans to spend almost $1 million on television ads in the run-up to election day. The first two of those ads hit the airwaves earlier this month, just after Gillan put out her first ad.
Green said Gillan needs support from an outside group such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to help level the playing field. However, to be effective, such a move would have to come within the next couple of weeks, he said.