HELENA, Mont. — Denny Rehberg often wears cowboy boots while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, telling stories about his ranching background and bashing the "death tax" and "Obamacare," characterizations popular with Montana's rural residents.

To Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, the Republican congressman who wants to take his place is all hat and no cattle.

Describing himself as a "dirt farmer," Tester says Rehberg hasn't rounded up his own cattle in years, but has spent his time subdividing and developing what used to be his family's ranch.

"Building houses and mansion ranching is not ranching," Tester said at their first debate this summer.

The razor-tight race may come down to who is "more Montana."

Rehberg's campaign acknowledges that Tester may spend more of his free time farming, but the challenger says the first-term Democrat's support for President Barack Obama's mandate that most everyone buy health insurance runs counter to Montanans' libertarian streak.

Rehberg cites his long roots in ranching prior to leasing out his land due to the demands of his congressional office. He says managing cows is different from farming and requires a full-time presence.

"Frankly I am sorry for the people of Montana that he is wasting so much time as a U.S. senator talking about what a great farmer he is," Rehberg said in an interview. "Maybe he ought to spend a little bit more time trying to help get people back to work and expand the economy because that is what I am focused on. I don't think the people of Montana would particularly want me sitting around the ranch trying to keep the cows in the fence and putting water in front of them and such."

Each candidate lays claim and blame over who's the least elite, most authentic and best able to represent the state's 1 million rural residents in Washington, a city they view with great distrust. Tester's two predecessors lost their populist appeal and re-election bids after becoming too identified with the city's Beltway interests.

The race, one of a few that will determine which party controls the Senate in 2013, is drawing millions of dollars in political money from out-of-state interest groups. Republicans need a net gain of four seats – three if GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins the presidency, because his vice president could break a tie vote – to regain control. Eleven weeks from the election, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin represent their best chances for pickups.

Tester's victory in 2006 helped Senate Democrats take over from Republicans. He won in a squeaker after arguing that three terms in Washington had corrupted incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who was embroiled in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. It helped that Tester, who has a flattop haircut and is missing a few fingers because of a butchering accident, looks every bit the dryland grain farmer he is, rumpled off-the-rack Sears suits and all.

Now that Tester is the incumbent, he's having to defend himself from attacks that he sold out to banks on debit card swipe fees and, perhaps more harmful, that he is a rubber stamp for Obama administration policies unpopular in Montana.

He is trying to distance himself from Obama by pointing out his opposition to new environmental regulations and proposed farm child labor rules that were considered but abandoned by the Labor Department. Tester also is pushing for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that runs from the Canadian oil fields south through Montana. Obama has postponed a decision on it until after the election.

But Tester wouldn't take back the politically harmful health care vote if he could do the first term over gain. Instead he said he wishes he had done more to stop the intervention in Afghanistan and bring the troops home, pointing to the maimed soldiers he's visited and the billions spent on the war.

Rehberg said he would take back the vote for the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 program to secure driver's licenses. The Real ID act was intended to help thwart terrorists, but the congressman said that at the time of the vote, he did not know that many in his state would come to despise the program.

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.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Lee Atwater: Smear Pioneer

    Negative campaigning has become more effective since 1828, though at times no less brutal. Many attribute this growing efficiency to the legacy of Republican strategist Lee Atwater. The former RNC chairman may have been best known as a driving force behind political ads such as the iconic <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Io9KMSSEZ0Y" target="_hplink">Willie Horton commercial</a> against Michael Dukakis in 1988, but his past involvement in smear campaigns is much deeper. Slate <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2008/09/mr_wedge_issue.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on Atwater's earlier career: <blockquote>In 1973, the 22-year-old protégé of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond began his consulting career by publicizing the fact that Tom Turnipseed, a candidate for the state Senate, had undergone shock therapy as a young man: "They hooked him up to jumper cables" became the catchphrase that sunk Turnipseed's candidacy. Five years later, Atwater helped to defeat Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor running for U.S. Congress, by secretly enlisting a third candidate to enter the race and stir up anti-Semitic sentiment. Atwater finagled his way into a minor post in the Reagan administration, but it was as the director of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (and mastermind of the Willie Horton TV ads) that he found his true Machiavellian voice.</blockquote>

  • The Wrong Jim Brady

    The potential perils of attack politics were on full display in 1996 when then-GOP Senate candidate Al Salvi attempted to knock down a high-profile endorsement given to his opponent, then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), by former Ronald Reagan Press Secretary Jim Brady. Brady "used to sell" machine guns, Salvi alleged, a strong claim considering Brady's position as strong advocate for gun control and victim of a gunshot wound to the head during a failed assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Salvi was wrong. "Turns out that was a different Jim Brady," a blushing Salvi was later <a href="http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1996-11-02/news/9611020079_1_o-malley-event-gun-control-assault-weapons" target="_hplink">forced to admit</a>. "I apologize." Salvi ended up losing to Durbin.

  • Attacking A Triple-Amputee For Lack Of Courage

    In 2002, Saxby Chambliss, then a Georgia GOP congressman mounting a bid for U.S. Senate, released a controversial ad <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58371-2004Sep28.html" target="_hplink">falsely accusing</a> then-Sen. Max Cleland (D), a triple-amputee Vietnam War veteran, of voting against the nation's national security interest. It placed Cleland next to images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and suggested that the senator lacked "courage." Chambliss, who didn't serve in Vietnam because of a bad knee, drew widespread condemnation from Republican military veterans in the Senate such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. In a 2008 interview, Chambliss, who had eventually gone on to defeat Cleland six years earlier, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2008/11/13/32286/chambliss-cleland-truthful/" target="_hplink">stood by his ad</a> as "truthful in every way."

  • Jean Schmidt Blasts 'Cowards'

    Long before Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) uttered <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/29/jean-schmidt-reacts-health-care-ruling_n_1638335.html" target="_hplink">shrieks of joy</a> because of false reports that the Supreme Court had ruled against Obamacare, she outraged colleagues on the House floor by suggesting that Vietnam veteran Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), was a "coward." In 2005, Schmidt addressed her colleagues in a House speech, <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2005/11/18/2603/schmidt-shame/" target="_hplink">relaying a message</a> from a Marine who she said had urged her to support an extension of the Iraq War. "He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course," she said. "He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world want the assurance from this body -- that we will see this through." She later returned to the House floor to have her remarks stricken from the record and to apologize to Murtha.

  • RNC's Harold Ford Hit

    In 2006, the Republican National Committee set off bickering within and between political parties when it decided to air an ad in a Senate race between then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and GOP candidate Bob Corker. The ad was chock-full of stereotypes and thinly-veiled racist undertones -- Ford is black. It drew widespread condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, including Corker himself. Amid the flareup, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15403071/ns/politics/t/tennessee-ad-ignites-internal-gop-squabbling/" target="_hplink">said he found nothing wrong</a> with the ad, but attempted to blame the content on a third party group. Corker eventually won the election.

  • Palin's 'Palling Around With Terrorists'

    In the heat of the 2008 presidential election, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lofted a now-infamous charge, drawing immediate criticism from opponents who saw it as an attempt to brand then-candidate Barack Obama as un-American. Some even alleged that it was a racially charged character attack seeking to subtly link the supposed terrorist ties to prevalent right-wing conspiracy theories about Obama's so-called Muslim roots. The Associated Press <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/05/ap-palins-ayers-attack-ra_n_132008.html" target="_hplink">reports</a> on her comments: <blockquote>"Our opponent ... is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin told a group of donors in Englewood, Colo. A deliberate attempt to smear Obama, McCain's ticket-mate echoed the line at three separate events Saturday. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."</blockquote>

  • 'There Is No God'

    In 2008, a floundering Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) released an ad attempting to accuse her opponent, Democrat Kay Hagan, of having mysterious ties to a group called Godless Americans. The entire ad struck many observers as a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/29/dole-ad-fabricates-audio_n_138874.html" target="_hplink">desperate attempt</a> to regain momentum, but the brunt of the controversy came in the last few seconds, when a faceless voice rings out, yelling "there is no God." Many saw it as an attempt to paint the quote as Hagan's. It wasn't. In fact, Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who served as an elder at her Presbyterian church.

  • Vintage Michele Bachmann

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had a somewhat rapid ascent to her current status as darling of conservatives and the Tea Party faithful. It was accelerated in part by appearances such as this one in 2008, during which she called into question the "pro-America" views of the Obamas and various members of Congress. HuffPost's Sam Stein <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/17/gop-rep-channels-mccarthy_n_135735.html" target="_hplink">reported</a> at the time: <blockquote>In a television appearance that outraged Democrats are already describing as Joseph McCarthy politics, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed on Friday that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle held anti-American views and couldn't be trusted in the White House. She even called for the major newspapers of the country to investigate other members of Congress to "find out if they are pro-America or anti-America." Appearing on MSNBC's Hardball, Bachmann went well off the reservation when it comes to leveling political charges against the Democratic nominee. "If we look at the collection of friends that Barack Obama has had in his life," she said, "it calls into question what Barack Obama's true beliefs and values and thoughts are. His attitudes, values, and beliefs with Jeremiah Wright on his view of the United States...is negative; Bill Ayers, his negative view of the United States. We have seen one friend after another call into question his judgment -- but also, what it is that Barack Obama really believes?"</blockquote>

  • 'You Lie'

    Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) embodied a newly emerging brand of hyper-partisanship in 2009 when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/09/09/gop-rep-wilson-yells-out_n_281480.html" target="_hplink">interrupted</a> President Barack Obama's major speech on his health care reform package. "You lie!" Wilson yelled over Obama, who was explaining that the legislation would not mandate coverage for undocumented immigrants. Wilson's outburst drew disapproval from both sides of the aisle.

  • 'Baby Killer'

    During the heat of the health care debate in 2010, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) added to the growing partisan discord when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/randy-neugebauer-revealed_n_508525.html" target="_hplink">shouted "baby killer"</a> at Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) while he was delivering a speech on the House floor. Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat, had been under heavy fire from Republicans after crafting a deal with the White House in return for his and other Democrats' "yes" vote on the health care reform bill. The White House held up their end of the bargain with an executive order affirming that no taxpayer money would go to fund abortions.

  • 'No Mosque'

    North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Renne Ellmers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/23/renee-ellmers-gop-congres_n_735585.html" target="_hplink">raised some eyebrows</a> and gave her race national attention when she released an attack ad attempting to link her Democratic challenger to the controversial Park51 Islamic center. The ad was criticized for its apparent interchangeable use of the words "terrorists" and "Muslims," as well as the fact that Ellmers' opponent, incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge (D) hadn't even weighed in on the issue yet. Ellmers didn't appear to do herself any favors in her <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/27/renee-ellmers-north-carol_n_740199.html" target="_hplink">attempts to explain the ad</a> during a contentious interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, but she ended up winning in November after a late surge of momentum.

  • Alan Grayson's 'Taliban Dan'

    Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) managed to give his opponent, Republican Dan Webster, a boost after he released an attack ad seeking to label Webster as "Taliban Dan." The spot featured selectively edited quotes from a 2009 Christian seminar that <a href="http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2010/sep/28/fact-checking-alan-graysons-taliban-dan-webster-ad/" target="_hplink">misrepresented Webster's words</a> to suggest that he believed wives should submit to their husbands. Grayson had repeatedly enraged his Republican opponents with biting and at times over-the-top allegations. Comments such as his notorious charge that their health care plan was for Americans to "die quickly" had made him a top target for the GOP. He would lose his election to Webster.

  • Scott Brown Pictures Stripped Elizabeth Warren

    Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) did himself no favors in the fall of 2011, when he returned a volley concerning his past nude modeling for <em>Cosmopolitan</em> magazine, a career choice that his Democratic opponent Elizabeth Warren had earlier jabbed at. HuffPost's Ryan Grim <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/scott-brown-elizabeth-warren-senate_n_998048.html" target="_hplink">reported</a>: <blockquote>"Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" the host asked Brown Wednesday. "Thank God!" Brown said, laughing. The host got a kick out it, too. "That's what I said! I said, 'Look, can you blame a good-looking guy for wanting to, you know..."</blockquote> His opponents quickly <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/06/news/la-pn-scott-brown-thank-god-20111006" target="_hplink">hit back</a>, claiming that the comments were sexist and "the kind of thing you would expect to hear in a frat house, not a race for U.S. Senate."

  • 'Debbie Spend It Now'

    Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) couldn't have picked a bigger stage to launch a now-notoriously insensitive ad against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. In the middle of the Super Bowl, Hoekstra's campaign <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china_n_1256791.html" target="_hplink">rolled out the spot</a>, which featured an Asian-American actress using stereotypically broken English to accuse Stabenow -- or "Spend-It-Now" -- of supporting U.S. government spending habits that benefitted the Chinese economy. The backlash was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/06/pete-hoekstra-ad-china-michigan_n_1256912.html" target="_hplink">bipartisan</a> and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/pete-hoekstra-polls-china-ad_n_1294221.html" target="_hplink">widespread</a>.

  • Allen West

    Though only a freshman, Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has already staked his political fame on inflammatory and controversial statements. His most well-known claim is now perhaps his contention that as many as 80 House Democrats are members of the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/allen-west-democrats-communist-party_n_1417279.html" target="_hplink">Communist Party</a>. His spokesperson later claimed that he was referring to members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Of course, that's just one of a catalogue of Allen West-isms. Click through the slideshow <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/19/allen-west-communists_n_1437517.html" target="_hplink">here</a> for a larger sampling.

  • 'True Hero' Battle

    Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) began digging himself a hole in July when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/03/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1646793.html" target="_hplink">suggested</a> that his Democratic opponent, triple-amputee Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, was not a "true hero" because she spoke too frequently about her military service. In the followup, Walsh kept digging deeper on the Duckworth line, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-tammy-duckworth_n_1650805.html" target="_hplink">claiming</a> that "all she does" is "talk about her service," instead of focusing on other issues. He <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/05/joe-walsh-ashleigh-banfield_n_1652236.html" target="_hplink">took a similar angle</a> in a subsequent interview, in which he managed to utter his interviewer's name more than 90 times.