By Matt Volz

Associated Press

HELENA, (AP) — A parade of Montana Democratic candidates made their opening arguments Saturday on how they can hold onto the governor's office and win back lost ground in a 2020 election that one party leader described as a fight for the nation's soul.

More than 100 Democratic delegates from across the state gathered in Helena on Friday and Saturday for a rules and officers' convention that also served as a rally to energize the party faithful for the long campaign season ahead. Candidates for governor, Senate, House and other statewide offices were given three minutes to make their pitch to the influential crowd.

They included party luminaries such as U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams, who received a long standing ovation, and political newcomers like Senate candidate John Mues, who sought to make a strong first impression.

They also included the three candidates who want to extend the streak of a having a Democratic governor in office to at least 20 consecutive years. Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and House Minority Speaker Casey Schreiner both said they plan to run positive campaigns on improving wages, protecting education and other ways to help average families.

But they and the third candidate, former legislator Reilly Neill, each made references - some veiled, some overt - to the need to keep a conservative such as technology entrepreneur U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte out of office.

"We don't want some wealthy out-of-stater who doesn't understand our values coming in because he doesn't live our values," Cooney said.

Gianforte is running against Attorney General Tim Fox and state Sen. Al Olszewski for the Republican nomination for the open governor's seat. Gov. Steve Bullock can't run again due to term limits and is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Democrats say an important governmental check would be lost if a Republican-majority Legislature teamed up with a Republican governor. Bullock has vetoed dozens of GOP-backed bills over his two terms from abortion restrictions to loosening gun regulations.

"I think the stakes are very high," Schreiner said. "The education system is at risk, access to public lands is at risk."

Former legislator Robyn Driscoll, who was elected state party chairwoman on Saturday, framed the election more starkly as a fight against the winnowing of public institutions and the increasing disrespect faced by women, minorities and gay and lesbian people since President Donald Trump took office.

"The soul of our nation is at stake in this election," Driscoll said.

Gianforte, Fox, Olszewski spoke at a GOP convention last month about ending the Democrats' 16-year streak in the governor's office. They viewed the prospect of all-GOP executive and legislative branches as a way to free the state of constraints that have held back a conservative agenda that would lead to economic prosperity and less regulation.

They also largely aligned themselves with Trump, who is seeking re-election and won by a landslide in Montana in 2016.

With Gianforte running for governor, Williams is trying again for the House seat she lost to him in 2018. She said the momentum that she built last year has carried over into a strong fundraising at the beginning of this campaign.

"What people like you did is help me get the closest in over 20 years to unseating an incumbent," she said. "We need someone who can get elected in Montana, who can help fix this broken Congress and who can effectively advance Montana's hope, struggles and dreams."

Her primary opponent, state Rep. Tom Winter, traveled to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on Saturday and did not speak at the convention.

Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and Mues also tested their stump speeches in their bids to take on first-term U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

Candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and superintendent of public education also spoke.

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