HELENA – At least three, perhaps four, people will compete this Saturday to become the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate replacing Sen. John Walsh – and the emerging front-runner may be a little-known high school teacher from Butte.

First-term state Rep. Amanda Curtis, a math teacher at Butte High School whose name surfaced as a candidate late last week, now has the support of MEA-MFT, the state’s largest labor union and a key player in Democratic Party politics.

Curtis, 34, is among three people who confirmed Monday they’ll be candidates at the state Democratic Party’s nominating convention Saturday in Helena, where delegates will choose who replaces Walsh on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Walsh, appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock as U.S. senator in February, withdrew as a candidate for his seat last Thursday in the wake of revelations that he plagiarized his master’s degree final paper at the U.S. Army War College in 2007.

The other candidates vying to replace Walsh will be Dirk Adams, a Wilsall rancher who lost to Walsh in the three-way U.S. Senate primary in June, and state Sen. Dave Wanzenried of Billings.

Former Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, who finished second behind Walsh in the June U.S. Senate primary, said Monday he also will be at the convention Saturday, but isn’t sure someone will nominate him – or whether he’d accept the nomination.

Bohlinger, 78, said he thinks he’s still the most qualified candidate to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines in November – but that he won’t accept the nomination unless state and national Democratic Party groups pledge to give him strong assistance in the campaign.

“I’m not going to be a sacrificial lamb,” he said.

Daines, 51, Montana’s first-term congressman, already had been considered a favorite to win the race before Walsh withdrew.

Whoever takes Walsh’s place as the Democratic candidate will start the race with virtually no money and scant name recognition.

Curtis said Monday she’s “in a unique position to electrify the base and energize the state and bring in disenfranchised voters from the left, the right and the middle.”

“I’m young and I’m aggressive,” she said. “I’ll get a chance to meet eyeball-to-eyeball with Montanans and point out the stark differences between a millionaire like Steve Daines and a high school teacher like me. It will be a very clear choice.”

Eric Feaver, president of the 18,000-member union that represents teachers, other school employees and some local government workers, said it’s supporting Curtis because of she’ll “grow the Democratic Party base.”

“She’s young, she’s assertive, she’s articulate, she’s smart and she has all the right vibrations to invite younger folks and women to join the party,” he said. “And I believe she will smack Steve Daines upside the head, which he needs.”

Adams and Wanzenried acknowledged that support from MEA-MFT is significant, but said the race is far from over.

Adams, 63, said he’s a progressive Democrat whose positions on the issues are stated clearly and completely on his website – and that he’ll have the money to run a credible race against Daines.

“I’m prepared to go immediately,” he said Monday. “I can, in some part, self-fund, and I can get started quickly. There are only seven weeks until absentee ballots go out.”

Adams, originally from Texas, has operated a ranch near Wilsall since the early 1980s. He’s also an attorney and worked as a bank regulator and bank executive, primarily in California.

Wanzenried, 65, a longtime state legislator from Missoula who recently moved to Billings, said he’ll be emphasizing his experience and his “passion and fire, and my willingness to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done … to hold (Daines) accountable for his record.”

Wanzenried has worked for a trucking company and plans to teach political science at Montana State University-Billings this fall. He’s been a state legislator from Missoula and Kalispell, and served in the cabinet of Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden in the 1980s.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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