Some 2,200 miles outside the Washington Beltway, back home in his rosy red state, and Sen. Conrad Burns still can't get away from Jack Abramoff.

During an appearance at a Rotary Club gathering at a Billings hotel last week, the Montana Republican was met by a half-dozen protesters holding signs such as "Sold to the highest bid" and "Burns, your lie is open." In fact, wherever Burns went on his statewide tour, people wanted to talk about the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Burns was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the money Abramoff lavished on Capitol Hill — a connection some say could make the third-term lawmaker one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents come Election Day.

Every chance they get, the Democrats accuse Burns of being at the epicenter of a GOP "culture of corruption." Recent polls show that his two leading Democratic challengers may be gaining on him. Newspaper editorials have been critical, with the Missoulian calling Burns the "perfect candidate" to help the Democrats win his seat. And Burns finds himself dismissing speculation he will step aside in favor of a more popular Republican.

"It is absolutely going to be a race," said Craig Wilson, a Montana State University-Billings political scientist who has observed Montana politics for 40 years. "I think it's going to be interesting."

The Democrats already hold the governorship in this historically Republican-leaning state and are salivating over the chance to pick up a Senate seat and help break the GOP's 55-44 control of the chamber. Among Senate Republicans, only Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum is more vulnerable than Burns, some observers say.

"Burns is front and center in the Abramoff scandal, and I don't think you are going to see this race drop off anyone's radar screen until he is out," said state Democratic Party spokesman Matt McKenna.

Still, Burns has been marked as vulnerable before, only to win re-election. He also has the considerable advantages of incumbency, the election is a long 9 1/2 months away, and a lot could depend on how the Abramoff scandal unfolds.

Earlier this month, Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors investigating influence-peddling on Capitol Hill.

An Associated Press review found that in 2001, Burns and his staff met Abramoff's lobbying team and collected thousands of dollars in donations around the time that Burns took legislative action favorable to Abramoff's clients in the Northern Mariana Islands. Burns also helped arrange congressional funding for an Indian school building program sought by Abramoff's tribal clients.

He has announced plans to return or donate $146,700 that he received from Abramoff or Abramoff clients. But earlier this week, an American Indian council refused to accept $110,000 from Burns, saying the money was tainted.

Burns is telling constituents that he has done nothing wrong, that he has a "clear conscience" and that he is being tied unfairly to someone he barely knows.

Still, "it doesn't look good, and it's hard to see it getting better," said Helena retiree Dal Phillips, an undecided voter.

As for the reception Burns has received during his home-state tour, "I think a lot of folks have withheld judgment because they recognize the source of these attacks, that is the state Democratic Party," said Mark Baker, Burns' campaign chairman.

The leading Democratic contenders for the Senate seat are state Auditor John Morrison and state Senate President Jon Tester. The primary is June 6.

Burns, who turns 71 next week and has token primary opposition, has positioned himself closely to the president and sits on the influential Senate Appropriations Committee. Over the years, he has pushed for airline pilots to carry guns, supported more oil drilling and held sway over Western land issues and the National Park Service.

He has also ridden out criticism for such gaffes as referring to Arabs as "ragheads" in 1999 and asking a woman with a nose ring what tribe she belonged to.