Montana State University political scientist David Parker says Republicans "are attacking Tester in ways that would push him away from that image as a Montana farmer: One, he is with Obama. Two, he is a nasty guy. And three, yeah, he makes and eats his own beef, but he votes against Montanans and their interests."
Parker said that Tester's connection to the land is his strongest asset, and he can't have Rehberg seen as a rancher, too, because that would obscure the differences between them.
The Tester campaign argues that Rehberg hasn't bought or sold cattle since at least 2000, citing state livestock inspection records. Some of the attacks deride Rehberg as a multimillionaire land developer.
While Rehberg is the challenger in the race, he has been in statewide politics much longer than Tester and is just as well-known. He was an ardent supporter of conservatives polices as a state legislator in the 1980s. He became lieutenant governor in 1991 and in 1996 he almost defeated veteran Democratic Sen. Max Baucus.
Rehberg isn't ceding the ranching background. He often talks about his family being forced to sell parts of the historic family ranch near Billings in order to pay inheritance taxes — the derided federal "death tax" — after his grandmother died in the 1970s. He managed the family ranch for several years before winning the state's lone U.S. House seat in 2000.
In the House, Rehberg carefully has maintained his conservative credentials even while sometimes turning on Republicans, such as when he backed the 2009 expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Last year, he was one of just three other Republicans in the House to oppose Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal that would transform Medicare.
Rehberg holds an advantage in the more rural parts of the state, and even expects to carry Chouteau County that is home to Tester's Big Sandy farm and about 6,000 people. Those voters largely went for Burns in 2006.
Tester reminds voters why they picked him in the first place. He was first a music teacher and a farmer, then a state legislator and farmer. If he loses the election, he said he will happily return to just farming.
He spent free time in late July and early August harvesting his crops — or at least those that survived what Tester called one of the worst hail storms to his farm in 35 years. "I take my vacation on the combine and tractor. I am not bitchin' either, I like it that way," he told The Associated Press in an interview.
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