The front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Secretary of State Jim Waltermire, died in a plane crash as he was returning from a campaign stop, authorities said Saturday.

Waltermire, who was in a three-way race for the GOP nomination, was flying back from Glasgow, in northeastern Montana, when the twin-engine Cessna 310 went down Friday night in a field east of East Helena, said his campaign manager, Chuck Brooke. The pilot also was killed.Waltermire, of Helena, and his two GOP rivals had addressed a Lincoln Day Dinner in Glasgow.

Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson identified Waltermire's body and that of the pilot, James A. Morris, 64, of Dillon.

The plane disappeared from radar at 11:23 p.m. as it approached the Helena airport in light snow, said Nick Wantiez, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle.

The plane crashed a few minutes later in a field about four miles from the airport runway and a quarter-mile north of U.S. 12, said Nelson. Searchers found the plane about four hours later.

The plane's wreckage was scattered along a path about 200 yards long and 50 to 75 yards wide, Nelson said.

"It was believed it (the plane) originally had a pilot and two passengers, but there's a possibility that one of the passengers deplaned. We're just not sure," Wantiez said.

Brooke said he knew of only two people aboard.

Nelson described Morris as a very experienced pilot who was familiar with the airport. But he said a "severe springtime storm" could have contributed to the crash. "It was snow and sleet and fairly high winds," he said.

Waltermire, 39, was elected secretary of state in 1980 and was re-elected in 1984. Opposing him for the GOP gubernatorial nomination was state Rep. Cal Winslow and former state Sen. Stan Stephens.

Waltermire began his political career in 1977 when he was elected Missoula County commissioner. He ran unsuccessfully for the western district congressional seat in 1978 before becoming secretary of state two years later.

He began laying the groundwork for his gubernatorial bid shortly after being elected to a second term, putting in place an elaborate funding operation to pay for what he said could be a $1 million campaign.

Waltermire had been at the center of controversy since assuming the secretary of state's office. Ten months after his election, he was embroiled in a dispute over his plan to create an ethics commission.

In 1985, he was criticized for using official trips at state expense to arrange financing and support for future political campaigns. He also came under fire for adding two political advisers to his office staff and for using state phones to talk with former campaign consultants and contributors.

Last year, the courts overturned the election on two ballot measures because of mistakes made by Waltermire's office in the pre-election publication of the initiatives.