HELENA, Mont. – The hot-button issue in the Montana governor's race is not school funding, overcrowded prisons or abortion. It is where the Democratic candidate bought a pickup truck and a sport utility vehicle last year.
Brian Schweitzer (search) went to a dealership in Idaho to buy the Chevrolet Silverado and Tahoe, saying he saved several thousand dollars by not going to a local dealer.
Republicans call it a slap in the face to Montana businesses and a sign that Schweitzer cannot be trusted.
The issue, as trivial as it might sound, has revved up what was once a quiet race between Schweitzer and Republican Secretary of State Bob Brown (search), who are battling to replace GOP Gov. Judy Martz (search). Brown's running mate raised the stakes this week when he held a news conference at a Helena auto dealership to show off a shiny new pickup truck he bought there.
"When he talks about the importance of supporting small business, it's important for him to support small business," Brown said of Schweitzer. "His actions aren't consistent with his rhetoric. This incident casts doubt on our ability to trust Brian."
Schweitzer defended the purchase as a wise business decision and called such accusations "baloney."
"This is a smear campaign from beginning to end," said Schweitzer, a wealthy farmer from Whitefish. "It has nothing to do with leadership for the future of Montana. Why is it any of their business where I conduct my private business?"
Craig Wilson, who heads the political science department at Montana State University-Billings, called the issue an example of the "political minutia" that are seized on to draw distinctions between two candidates with few major differences.
"It's one of those political tempests in a teapot, and we might see a lot of these teapots this fall," he said. "I don't think that this one's going to decide the election."
Schweitzer said he paid $25,451 for the pickup and $31,447 for the SUV at Dave Smith Motors in Kellogg, Idaho, about a three-hour drive from his home. Republicans dispute his contention that he saved at least $10,000 by going out of state.
Dave Lewis, Brown's running mate, said Schweitzer's buying habits speak volumes about how he would lead the state.
"I'm proud I could buy locally," he said Tuesday at Chevrolet of Helena. "As a candidate for lieutenant governor, I know I can't sell Montana and Montana products if I sell out by spending my money out of state."
Schweitzer said the candidates should be talking about Montanans' low incomes, the need for affordable health care and prescription drugs, and how to trigger more investment in the state.
"It's a little sad," Wilson said of the focus on Schweitzer's automobile buying. Both men "are qualified to be governor. One would hope they would use some bigger issues."
An early poll showed Schweitzer leading Brown by 10 percentage points in the campaign to succeed Martz, whose first term was marked by dismal approval ratings. Montana normally votes Republican, but Schweitzer came within 4 points of defeating GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000.