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Embattled incumbent Conrad Burns declined to appear at the Friday, April 28, Missoula debut of Montana’s 2006 candidates for United States Senate at the UM’s University Center Theater, and who can blame him? Jon Tester announced that Burns’ relationship with indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff “turned his stomach.” And even Bob Keenan—Bigfork’s brave Republican alterna-Burns—looked a little like a spooked cat just to be in such a presumably liberal room. But regardless, Keenan said, he put himself on the ballot—as did his fellow candidates—to provide a choice for voters, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, who just can’t swallow the idea of reelecting Montana’s junior senator.

SO what are Montana’s choices?

Well, there’s Keenan, who swore he’d be straight with the audience, even knowing it probably disagreed with him (on illegalizing abortion and a depressing stay-the-course fatalism toward America’s war presence in Iraq, at least).

Then there’s dark horse candidate and Great Falls car salesman Daniel Lloyd Neste Huffman, who seemed so overwhelmed with frustration at the cause of underpaid laborers in an ever-more-expensive world that he forgets, if he ever knew, his proper political classification. (After Huffman spoke pleadingly for a doubling of the minimum wage and increased government regulation of exploitive corporations, Tester half-jokingly invited him to join the Democrats to stage-left of the dais.)

That’s where Tester, State Auditor John Morrison and former state legislator Paul Richards sat, looking like a perfect little 3-ply microcosm of the modern Democratic Party: Morrison in his dark suit, white shirt and politician’s haircut; Paul Richards with his balding pate and beard, a paradigm-shifting radical with one foot in Dennis Kucinich’s website and another in 1972; and Tester, the flat-topped organic farmer from Big Sandy riding a rock star’s endorsement and publicity photos full of hay.

Tester’s run has been quiet so far, all Schweitzer-style charisma and petty cash. Morrison, the apparent frontrunner, faces a small scandal in his infidelity, and a potentially larger one in his kid-glove treatment of his mistress’ criminal husband (happily for him, a previous obligation compelled him to leave for an award ceremony in Havre before the Q&A session).

And Richards, though he’s transparently correct about almost everything, is clearly unelectable.

Unelectable is a strong word, and we mean no offense to Richards or his fellow unelectables: the way-too-real Huffman and no-show wild card Ken Marcure). As small consolation, though, let us offer the unappealing thought that perhaps the most electable presence in the room was the candidate who wasn’t there: Conrad Burns. And while all the candidates are vying for his job, it’s clear that not one of them wants to be seen standing in his shoes.

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