HELENA, Mont. (AP) - With more than 16 months to go before the 2012 general election, Montana voters are already getting a steady sample of the acrimony to come as Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and his challenger, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, seek an early opening in what's expected to be one of the closest races in the nation.
Each is finding plenty of early material to work with: The six-term congressman, Rehberg, is testing his opponent's image as a populist. He's calling the senator "Wall Street Tester" because of Tester's efforts to stop lower debit card fees.
Meanwhile, Tester is also playing the greed card. He's highlighting Rehberg's lawsuit against his hometown for the way it handled a wildlfire on his land.
The early attacks are being fortified with the kind of outside money and attention that makes it clear Tester vs. Rehberg will be one of the premier races in the coming election cycle.
Both have been through this before. Tester's 2006 win over Sen. Conrad Burns - Rehberg's closest ally - helped give Democrats control of the Senate. Meanwhile, Rehberg lost a bid for the U.S. Senate back in 1996 against Sen. Max Baucus. He returned four years later to win the state's lone House seat - a job he has held ever since.
Tester won over Montana moderates with a down-home persona that came with a flattop haircut and overalls. But Republican hope that Tester's backing of the banking industry's position on debit card fees could test that support.
Merchants who want the lower fees are riled by Tester's move - as are some Democratic Party leaders.
Republicans are quick to point out that roughly $60,000 in campaign contributions to Tester from big banks rolled in as he tried to change a rule congressional Democrats implemented with last year's financial overhaul.
"Clearly there is a matching up of Wall Street contributing to Sen. Tester's campaign in terms of his interest in fixing a problem he created," Rehberg said in an interview. "It is apparent there are contributions that are coming from Wall Street as a result of his legislation."
Tester argues the lower fees will hurt small community banks, despite an exemption for small banks written into the law. He argues the community banks won't be able to compete when big banks start charging less.
"The fact is it is the right thing to do and that is why I am doing it," Tester said.
Ironically, the shots aimed at Tester by state Republican leaders are reminiscent of the attacks Tester himself used in 2006 to topple Burns and his "K Street cronies."
Polling earlier this year showed Tester was in a pretty good position for a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state at a time when his party's brand is flagging. Both he and Rehberg started their race about even, and each had an approval rating around 50 percent.
Democrats are also launching a familiar "pay-to-play" attack on Rehberg for taking campaign contributions from big oil while voting to defend tax breaks given the lucrative industry, an association that hasn't hurt the Republican much in the past with Montana voters.
But it is the lawsuit against the City of Billings over a 2008 Fourth of July wildfire that scorched 1,200 acres of groundcover on a planned subdivision at Rehberg Ranch Estates that is giving Democrats opportunity to lampoon Rehberg for his "frivolous lawsuit" that could stick city taxpayers with the bill if he wins.
"He is a career politician who has looked out for himself first all along, and that is exactly what happened in this firefighter lawsuit," Tester said in a recent interview. "I don't know anyone else who would sue the Billings Fire Department even though there was no loss of buildings or lives."
Rehberg says the lawsuit against the city and its managers alleges firefighters should have remained at the scene to monitor the fire. Rehberg also points out his wife runs that business and made the decision to file the lawsuit in order to protect an insurance claim.
Rehberg sidestepped another potential problem earlier this year when he voted with just three other Republicans in the House to oppose Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan to transform Medicare. The move riled tea party supporters - but it is making it more difficult for the Democrats to tie him to other Republicans for trying to "end Medicare as we know it."
"There is only one person that has voted against changing Medicare as we know it, and that's me. I voted against the Ryan budget and I voted against Obamacare," Rehberg said.
And Tester, whose common-man approach continues to draw supporters, is still gaining traction for his plan to advance in the Senate a compromise between the flagging timber industry and environmentalists that aims to mandate more logging while also increasing wilderness area. And his campaign has been launched with a great deal of intensity, said Montana State University political scientist David Parker.
"Both sides have done some smart things and both sides have done some things they wish they could take back," said Parker, who plans a book on the campaign. "The story is fascinating and it is interesting and I don't know where it is going to end."