Say goodbye to bolo ties.

Whoever replaces Gov. Brian Schweitzer after November’s election will be making an executive neckwear change. But that may be one of the few areas in which the candidates agree.

The race featuring piles of out-of-state money pits Attorney General Steve Bullock, the Democrat, against former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill, the Republican. Throw in Libertarian candidate Ron Vandevender and independent Bill Coate and you’ve got the cast of Montana Governor 2012.

The major-party rivals say they offer voters a clear choice.

“This election represents a crossroads,” Bullock said in an interview. “The congressman is looking backwards, and I think there’s great things ahead of us.”

Hill sees it differently.

“Our agenda is focused on unleashing the private sector,” Hill said. “(Bullock’s) focus is on expanding the public sector.”

But it’s not that simple, of course.

Differences on Issues

Hill and Bullock differ on issues ranging from abortion to tax reform and unions.

Hill defines himself as “pro-life” and believes life begins at conception. He supports the statewide ballot measure that would require doctors to notify parents when girls under 16 seek abortions.

Bullock supports abortion rights and opposes the parental notification measure as government intrusion into a woman’s private healthcare decisions.

The two differ on public education too. Hill’s plan would revise tenure laws to reward good teachers and replace bad ones. He would promote charter schools and allow tax breaks for foundations that support scholarships for students attending private schools.

He also supports a change in the way Montana pays for education. Hill said he would eliminate statewide property taxes for K-12 schools and replace the lost money with revenue from oil, gas and coal development.

Bullock, whose mother and stepfather were public school teachers, has criticized Hill’s support for school choice. He argues for keeping taxpayers invested in K-12 schools to ensure a stable funding. He also supports a freeze in college tuition.

Both candidates support developing Montana’s natural resources, but Hill said he will push harder. He questions his rival’s enthusiasm by pointing toward Bullock’s vote against accepting Arch Coal’s winning bid to develop state-owned coal in southeast Montana’s Otter Creek area.

Bullock, a member of the board that oversees state-owned lands, defends that vote, saying the bid was too low. But he added that he’s voted for other leases that were in the state’s interest to support.

“And we’ll continue making sure we’re not selling our resources at bargain basement prices,” he told a Helena audience last month.

When it comes to health care, well, you’ve seen the ads. Hill is quick to tie his opponent to the controversial federal Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare. Hill points repeatedly to Bullock’s refusal to join mostly Republican attorneys general in 26 states who unsuccessfully challenged the law in federal court.

Joining that effort would have wasted Montana’s time and money, Bullock said. He stops short of advocating the Affordable Care Act, but added, “We’re paying too much and getting too little. We need to challenge every cost and start paying for results and not just repeated tests.”

On tax reform, Bullock made a stir earlier this year with his plan to refund Montana taxpayers $400 as a direct stimulus. The money would come from the state’s current surplus. Hill calls that a “one-time gimmick” and supports permanent cuts in property taxes and replacing the lost money with revenue from energy development.

The two also clash over unions, with Hill saying he would support a right-to-work law, forbidding unions from making membership a condition of employment. Bullock promised to veto right-to-work legislation.

Different journeys

Hill and Bullock have taken different paths to get where they are today.

Bullock was born in Missoula 46 years ago and raised in Helena. He received his law degree from Columbia University’s School of Law in New York and returned to Montana.

His first government job came in 1996 as chief legal counsel to Democratic Secretary of State Mike Cooney, and he was chief deputy attorney general from 1997 to 2001. He practiced law and taught in Washington, D.C., before returning to Helena in 2005. He became attorney general in 2008 by defeating Republican Tim Fox.

Among the achievements he lists are increasing Montana’s minimum wage, strengthening recreational access to public lands and waterways, a tougher law on drunk driving, and a prescription drug registry to thwart doctor shopping by drug addicts.

Hill’s journey began in Grand Rapids, Mich. He graduated from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 1968 and moved to Montana shortly afterward. Now retired, Hill has built several businesses and advised many others.

He entered public life in 1993 as a lobbyist for Gov. Marc Racicot and served as volunteer chairman of the State Worker’s Compensation Board. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1996 and 1998 but declined to run again due to vision problems that he says have since been corrected.

Since leaving Congress, the 65-year-old has earned a law degree — not to practice law, he said, but to understand how to make better laws. With experience in insurance and real estate investment, he said he is the candidate of business.

Achievements he touts include reorganizing Montana’s worker's compensation system, which faced a large deficit the early 1990s. The solution required payroll contributions from workers and employers. As a congressman, he supported welfare reform and helped Montana obtain the rights to federal coal in the Otter Creek area in exchange for halting a proposed gold mine near Yellowstone National Park.

Third-party hopefuls

As the race heads to the wire, undecided voters may make the difference. A Lee newspapers poll in mid-September found that 11 percent of those surveyed had yet to make a choice.

Vying with Bullock and Hill for that last chunk of votes are two third-party candidates.

Libertarian Ron Vandevender, who lives near Craig, opposes federal intrusion and is a staunch supporter of property rights. He supports cutting business taxes, establishing co-ops, and developing industrial hemp.

Independent Bill Coate, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in Helena, says the two-party system is broken. He’s campaigning for tax cuts, more energy development, fewer government regulations and less waste.