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U.S. presidential candidates rarely step foot in Big Sky Country. Montana’s measly three electoral votes are hardly a strategic incentive for time-strapped would-be Deciders in Chief to make so much as a tarmac campaign stop. But already this year, a full five months before the first presidential primary election, two top contenders for the highest seat in the nation have graced our purplish state with their presence.

In June, Republican Mitt Romney did his best Reagan impersonation to help fire up the 350 or so battered and bloodied Montana Republicans at their annual officer’s convention in Helena. Romney’s speech was filled with the same tired conservative rhetoric that’s been pouring out of GOP think tanks for the last 13 years: Democrats want to raise your taxes. Democrats want to take your guns away. Democrats want to destroy marriage. Democrats hate God. Etc. Save for a handful of College Republicans and a few 20-something state party staffers, the majority of those attending that event were grumpy old men, their wives and disgraced GOP legislators, and they hooted in agreement. It was, in a word, a snoozefest.

John Edwards’ appearance at the University of Montana on Tuesday was an altogether different sort of campaign stop. It was open to students and anyone else who wanted to fork over $15 for the fundraising pep rally, and more than 500 packed the University Center Ballroom to catch a glimpse of Edwards and hear his populist message. Edwards, the most liberal of the top tier Democratic candidates, is running a distant third to frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but you wouldn’t know it from the enthusiasm buzzing on the third floor of the U.C.

When Edwards finally took the stage after an introduction from the Coal Cowboy himself, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, his 30-minute speech hewed to his oft-stated campaign message: the Bush administration has destroyed America’s standing in the world and Edwards will fix it; he’ll make sure every American has healthcare coverage; he’ll end the war in Iraq. Etc.

But it was lines touching on issues close to Missoulians’ hearts that generated the biggest rounds of applause.

Edwards nearly had to shout over the crowd once he started talking about his environmental policies.

“We need to cap carbon emissions…”


“We ought to invest in wind, solar, cellulose-based biofuels…”

Louder cheers.

“…we shouldn’t build another coal-fired power plant in America!”

Deafening cheers.

On that last point, off to stage right, Gov. Schweitzer was smiling, but he wasn’t cheering.

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