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Originally published Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 3:00 PM

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Taking a break to dissect some key Senate battles

We can't spend the next six months fixated on the presidential mudslinging, writes Gail Collins. With Senate campaigns, she adds, you actually learn something. Such as ...

Syndicated columnist

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Let's talk about the Senate races. It's a matter of mental health. We cannot spend the next six months fixating on Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Before you know it, we'll be so bored that we'll start arguing about whether it's seemly for the president to brag about killing Osama bin Laden.

With Senate campaigns you at least learn new things. Such as ...

MONTANA: Did you know that Billings is known as the Magic City? According to the Billings website, this is because "it seemingly grew overnight into the largest distribution center in Montana." You have to love that kind of factoid.

The subject came up in a story about congressman Denny Rehberg, the Republican candidate for Senate, who filed a negligence suit claiming the Billings Fire Department failed to control a wildfire that burned some land he was planning to develop. Rehberg dropped the case, but not before it set back the Magic City about $21,000 in legal fees.

People, if you are planning a career in politics, please be careful who you sue. Also, watch what you post on Facebook. And never tweet.

But I digress. On the Democratic side, the incumbent, Jon Tester, is running an ad titled "Jon Tester: Montana Beef — Montana Proud" which shows how the senator "packs his own Montana beef in his roller-cooler when traveling between Montana and the Senate."

Tester is one of the most endangered incumbents, because of Montana's current redness. On the plus side, he never sued any home-state cities.

NORTH DAKOTA: Rick Berg, North Dakota's congressman, opened his campaign for Senate with an ad in which his mom assures voters that Rick was raised right and will legislate "the North Dakota way." Have you ever noticed that politicians are the only ones who ever say things like "That's the North Dakota way" or "I'm Montana proud?" Some people identify with their town or city, and I did see an episode of "The Amazing Race" in which a guy from Kentucky claimed he was running for his county, which I found pretty unusual. But generally, you don't notice all that much state-consciousness outside of Texas, except during election seasons.

The Democrats fought back with an ad saying the Republican House budget was not "the way we do things in North Dakota." A Berg supporter retaliated by buying a radio ad claiming that a vote for the Democratic candidate, Heidi Heitkamp, would be a "vote for Obama socialism," and referring to her as "Heidi-ho."

Heitkamp supporters then questioned whether the friends of Berg were trying to suggest that she was a prostitute. Already we can see that this is going to be a seriously action-packed race.

MASSACHUSETTS: The hottest Senate race in the country is currently the one between the Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown and his challenger, Elizabeth Warren. Right now the big issue involves whether Warren, who could be one-32nd Cherokee, did anything wrong when she listed herself as a member of a minority group in a legal directory. "Professor Warren needs to come clean about her motivations for making these claims," said a Brown spokesman.

Several thoughts arise, including A) one-32nd really does not seem like a lot and B) any controversy in which the accusing side demands that an opponent "come clean about her motivations" is not going to go very far.

I'm sure this will blow over soon and we can get back to debating whether the pickup truck that Brown famously drove in his working-class-guy campaign to win the old Ted Kennedy seat was originally purchased to tow the family show horse.

INDIANA: Next Tuesday we will learn whether Richard Lugar, a Republican, wins renomination for the Senate seat he has held for almost 36 years. This is the guy who won international renown for his work against nuclear proliferation. If he loses, the Tea Party will have claimed another victim, terrifying the remaining moderate Republican in the Senate.

His opponent, Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer, claims that Lugar has become a creature of Washington. Generally, these lost-touch-with-the-people campaigns are bogus. But it does seem peculiar that Lugar's 2012 Indiana voting address was a house he sold in 1977.

Lugar, who has a home in the Washington suburbs, says he can't afford a place in Indiana too. This is a guy who represents a state where the median price of a house in Gas City is $88,000. Also, Lugar owns a family farm outside Indianapolis, but apparently there is no family house on the family farm. Personally, I'd have gone for the family shed.

Anyway, here is our question: Would you rather see Lugar win, striking a blow for moderate-although-actually-pretty-darned-conservative-but-just-not-crazy Republicanism? Or would you prefer to see him lose and give the Democrats a chance to pick up an unexpected seat? Feel free to choose. It's like the basketball playoffs. Every team has its good points. Except, of course, the Miami Heat.

© 2012, New York Times News Service

Gail Collins is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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