Conrad Burns, G.O.P. Senator from Montana, epitomizes rough-edged, Western independence. A tobacco-chewing conservative, he picks his teeth with a pocket knife and skewers liberal dogma with equal relish. He sees nothing wrong with snowmobiles in national forests, thinks drug companies aren't getting a fair shake and leads Congress in donations from Big Tobacco.
All that should make him unbeatable in a state with more than its share of crusty independents (and tobacco chewers). But Burns has just a narrow lead over Brian Schweitzer, a wealthy farmer riding a wave of resentment over the high cost of prescription drugs. Schweitzer, 45, first caught Montanans' attention by leading busloads of seniors on drug-buying trips across the Canadian border, where prescription drugs can be half as costly as in the U.S. Now Burns hands out packets showing measures he backs to lower drug costs for the elderly.
Schweitzer has also tried to needle Burns about his promise to serve only two terms. But Burns says that since Democrats in Congress defeated a term-limits amendment, which he supported, he's not going to throw away his position as chairman of the Commerce Committee's influential Communications Subcommittee. There, he has become such a proponent of e-commerce and privacy protection that Yahoo magazine called him "one of the Fathers of the Internet." Don't tell Al Gore.
--By David S. Jackson