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MISSOULA, Mont., May 25 (Reuters) - A Democratic political novice hopes to pull off a surprise victory in Republican-leaning Montana on Thursday in a special congressional race roiled on the eve of voting by allegations that the Republican candidate physically assaulted a reporter.
Democrat Rob Quist, a banjo-playing folk singer and first-time candidate, is facing off against Republican tech executive Greg Gianforte in a tightening race for the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated when President Donald Trump named Ryan Zinke as secretary of the interior.
Republicans have held Montana's lone House seat for two decades and Gianforte was still favored in a state that Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election.
However, the race was jolted on Wednesday when a political correspondent for the U.S. edition of the Guardian newspaper said in a Twitter post that Gianforte had "body slammed" him in a confrontation at a campaign event in Bozeman in which the reporter's eyeglasses were broken.
The incident, capping a campaign seen as a bellwether for next year's mid-term congressional races, occurred as Guardian correspondent Ben Jacobs was trying to ask Gianforte about healthcare, according to an audio tape captured by Jacobs and played on cable television.
Fox News Channel reporter Alicia Acuna, who said she and her crew were in the room preparing to interview Gianforte, wrote that she saw the candidate as he "grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him to the ground."
Acuna, her field producer and photographer then "watched in disbelief as Gianforte began punching (Jacobs) as he moved to top of the reporter," she wrote.
Gianforte's campaign did not deny Jacobs' allegation but countered in its own statement that Jacobs provoked an altercation by barging into the candidate's office, shoving a recording device in the politician's face and "asking badgering questions."
"After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined," campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon wrote. "Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg's wrist and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground."
"It's unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ," the statement concluded.
Acuna disputed that Jacobs was the aggressor.
"At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte," Acuna wrote on the Fox News website.
The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office said it was investigating the allegation and planned to discuss the matter with local prosecutors on Thursday.
Quist declined to comment immediately. He has focused his campaign on sharply criticizing the Republican effort to repeal and replace former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.
According to the audio tape, Jacobs' encounter with Gianforte turned violent when he tried to ask the candidate if he supported a Republican healthcare overhaul bill after the Congressional Budget Office found the measure would cost 23 million Americans their medical insurance coverage by 2026.
A Democratic upset in the race would set off alarms for Republicans already worried about the effects of Trump's unpopularity and the healthcare issue on their candidates in next year's midterm elections, when Republicans must defend their 24-seat House majority.
It would also give Democrats grassroots momentum heading into two special House elections for Republican-held seats next month, in Georgia and South Carolina. Republicans had to sweat out a closer-then-expected special House election win in conservative Kansas last month.
Gianforte has touted his willingness to work with Trump, who is still relatively popular in Montana. But Quist, who reported raising $6 million for the race, has urged voters to send Republicans a message about healthcare. Gianforte says he supports the effort to repeal Obamacare but has not backed the Republican bill passed by the House.
"I will only vote for a repeal and replace that brings premiums down, protects people with pre-existing conditions, and protects rural access. I can’t make that guarantee to Montanans yet, so I haven’t seen a proposal that I can support," Gianforte told a news station in Missoula on Wednesday. (Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)