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HELENA - Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Taylor abruptly dropped out of the race Thursday, saying he can't repair the damage caused by a Montana Democratic Party TV advertisement that falsely implies he was a gay hairdresser.

Taylor's withdrawal likely removes the major obstacle for his Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, to win his fifth term in the U.S. Senate where he serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Also left in the race are Green Party candidate Robert Kelleher of Butte and Libertarian Stan Jones of Bozeman, who have raised little money.

Although Taylor pulled out of the race less than four weeks before the Nov. 5 election, Secretary of State Bob Brown said Taylor's name will remain on the ballots. Write-in candidates can file until Oct. 21.

With his wife, Janna, at his side, Taylor, fighting back tears, said at a press conference he blames Baucus for smearing his good name.

Taylor, a millionaire who made his fortune in the hair-care industry, said he expected a hard-hitting campaign against Baucus. What he didn't expect, Taylor said, were the lies, "personal slanders of the vilest kind" and the "sea of sleaze" that he believes Baucus sanctioned through the Democrats' TV ad.

Taylor dropped out of the race six days after the Montana Democratic Party began airing a television ad statewide that accuses him of engaging in a "student loan scam" and lining his pockets with federal student loan money when he owned barber and beauty shop schools in the Denver area in the 1990s. He disputes the allegations but reached a settlement.

The Democrats' ad included footage from a weekly television show, "Beauty Corner," Taylor did for a Denver television station in the early 1980s. The ad showed a much slimmer Taylor, sporting a full beard, dressed in a tight-fitting three-piece suit with an open collared shirt that shows him wearing a number of gold chains. Taylor is shown rubbing lotion into another man's face.

Asked at the press conference if Democrats were trying to suggest he is gay, Taylor, a third-generation barber, said:

"There's no question about it. What they're trying to do is say that every barber and every cosmetologist, every manicurist or anybody in the beauty and hair fashion industry is homosexual."

Taylor distributed a poll done for his campaign Sunday and Monday that showed support for him had hemorrhaged since the Democrats' ads started running. Taylor's poll showed Baucus' lead over him had widened to 33 percentage points, 58 to 25 percent, since the ad began running. A Lee Newspapers poll two weeks ago showed Baucus with a 19 percentage point lead, 54 to 35 percent.

Taylor's campaign also had run out of money, with only $40,000 in the left in the bank as of Thursday morning, with debts of $65,000 that Taylor will repay, campaign manager Alan Mikkelsen said. The only chance for Taylor to fight back would be for the candidate to drop in an additional $250,000 to $500,000, on top of the $1 million he already had donated, to his campaign, Mikkelsen said.

"Perhaps I may be able to repair the damage my opponent has inflicted upon my good name and that of my family, but at what price?" Taylor said. "I would have to blanket the airwaves with slime more thoroughly than he. I will not."

Taylor, a state senator from Proctor, also suggested the national Republican Party hadn't done all it could to help him in the race. For months, he had been trying unsuccessfully to get President Bush, highly popular in Montana, to stump for him in the state. Baucus and Democrats have run ads with President Bush praising Baucus for his work on a $1.35 trillion tax cut last year and a trade promotion authority bill this year.

Vice President Dick Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., had campaigned for him here, but it seemed clear that the Montana race, once considered a high GOP priority, had dropped as Taylor failed to mount a strong challenge to Baucus.

Democrats and Baucus blamed Taylor's political demise on his own record, the student loan dispute and his positions on issues, not acknowledging that the video of Taylor massaging another man's face was a factor.

State Democratic Party Chairman Bob Ream said party officials believe Taylor dropped out of the race "because the Lee poll showed he was down 19 points two weeks before the ad ran and because national Republican organizations were refusing to support his campaign." Ream said Taylor also withdrew because of his lack of support from Montanans.

Saying it was out of consideration for Taylor, the Democratic Party said it was suspending its television and radio campaign and issue ads running against Taylor, its direct mail and billboards. Negative ads against Taylor were still running on evening news programs Thursday.

Baucus refused to make himself available to reporters to comment about the campaign development. Instead, his campaign issued a curt statement from Baucus that said: "I want to wish Mike Taylor and his family well. There are many important issues facing Montana, and I will continue to work hard to address them in the coming weeks."

There were no reports of prominent Republicans preparing to launch a write-in campaign. Although there were early rumors of former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, now Republican national chairman, entering the race, a party official who insisted on anonymity said Racicot would not enter the race.

Former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., said he believes Racicot is the only one who could successfully pull off a write-in campaign this late. He expressed no interest in a write-in effort.

Montana Republican Chairman Ken Miller, who already cast an absentee ballot, said he's still supporting Taylor and hopes other Montanans vote for him, even after the candidate has pulled out.

"I want to see Montanans rise up in protest to Baucus' style of campaigning and vote for Montana," Miller said. "I think it is a good time to stand up and make a statement. It would say we want to keep campaigns on the issues and not on personalities."

Taylor expressed concern that Baucus will be able to dump his money into other races, such as state legislative races, instead of against Taylor. He said he fears other Republican candidates are "just going to get hammered with stuff over the next two weeks."

The controversy erupted on Oct. 4 when Democrats called a press conference to show their new ad against Taylor and handed out a three-ring binder of details of audits by the U.S. Department of Education against the Michael Taylor Institute of Hair Design of Arvada, Colo. The party released audits of numerous alleged violations of federal student loan rules.

The audits said Taylor's institute had issued student loans for an ineligible manicure program that failed to result in jobs for nearly half of the students. Another audit, Democrats said, said Taylor's institute improperly kept money that should have been refunded in full to students who dropped out or transferred to another school.

A summary letter from the federal agency said the violations involved student loan funds totaling $158,493.

Taylor later said he had reached a settlement to pay the U.S. Department of Education $18,332 and the Colorado Student Loan Program $8,918 for a total of $27,250 to cover these audit allegations. The settlement contained language that said both Taylor and the federal agency concurred that the agreement "does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by either party." Such clauses are common in settlements.

The same ad showed the footage of Taylor applying the lotion to another man's face. Taylor said he demonstrated beauty techniques on women 99 percent of the time on his TV show, Taylor said.

U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., called Taylor "a fine man, husband and father" and added: "I am disappointed that the Democrat Party would fund and condone such an outrageous assault on him and his family." Burns said voting records are fair game, "but it is wrong to exploit perception."

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg could not be reached for comment.

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