HELENA, Mont. ľ U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has been here before.
Back during the Clinton era, the Democrat faced a choice: support an assault weapons ban urged by a president from his own party and risk angering constituents who cherish their gun rights, or buck his party. He chose the ban, and nearly lost his Senate seat.
Now, as he begins his campaign for a seventh term, Baucus is facing a similar dilemma. For weeks, he has refused to clearly say which way heĺd vote on an assault-weapons ban. He said through a spokeswoman Thursday that heĺd oppose it.
But that decision alone doesnĺt settle the issue for his re-election campaign. His opponents are eager to pounce as he navigates a series of other gun-control proposals, including an expected call for universal background checks.
Baucusĺ predicament is one that a group of Democrats like him in the West and South are facing. They hail from predominantly rural regions of the country where the Second Amendment is cherished and where Republicans routinely win in presidential elections.
From Montana to Louisiana, these anxious voters have made at least six Democratic senators a little uneasy heading into next yearĺs election season. Both sides are aware that gun-ownersĺ rights are taking shape as a campaign issue that could shift the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
ôMake no mistake ľ it is a very delicate dance for rural state Democrats,ö said Barrett Kaiser, a Democratic political consultant.
ôI would be stunned if the Montana congressional delegation said anything but Ĺhell noĺ to gun-control measures,ö he added.
Part of the concern comes from a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips. The plan is a response to calls for new gun restrictions from President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school.
Gun control is a top-agenda item for many Democrats, and theyĺll need all the votes they can to push changes.
Baucus knows, though, that a gun-control vote ôopens the door for whoever challenges him, because Montanans do not want the federal government restricting guns. That is clear as day,ö said Republican state Rep. Scott Reichner, who was Mitt Romneyĺs campaign chairman in Montana.