The Quiet Man : All eyes are on Larry EchoHawk, who has supporters from Hollywood to the White House. But the shy Native American only has eyes for Idaho--and that's why he wants to be its governor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many came here stalking a stereotype.

The BBC. Paris match. An Italian magazine and Japanese television. They led an insistent trickle of overseas media searching for a man they presumed to be a noble savage tamed by the white eyes--and now poised to become the nation's first Native American governor.

"I'm probably a disappointment to some people," says Larry EchoHawk. The name is proud Pawnee and as romantic as great-grandfather Echo Hawk, the U.S. cavalry scout. "Maybe they do want to see me in an Indian shirt, or beads, with a headdress on. But as you can see, I wear a business suit."

Also button-down shirts, power ties and sensible shoes. He speaks carefully like the attorney he is, and campaigns with a huge dignity that has brought this Democrat from county prosecutor and state legislator to Idaho attorney general in just over a decade.

And with the unsolicited support of Hollywood money, the expensive advice of Washington spin doctors, and the endorsement of jogging partner Bill Clinton--albeit a dubious asset in conservative, gun totin' Idaho--most polls give EchoHawk a double-digit leg-up for a place in American history.

"I want to be known as a leader, a person in public office who stands for things they believe in, and values they were raised with," he insists. "I have some strong feelings and positions . . . most evolved from how I was raised.

"Undoubtedly, my Native American roots influence how I look at things."

EchoHawk is at the wheel of a Nissan Maxima rental, cutting across the Idaho Panhandle. If this is 8 a.m. it must be Moscow. It's also the first of 10 legs of another 14-hour day; to shake hands in Orofino, Kamiah, Nezperce and innocent villages where school signs warn about cigarettes, not guns, on campus. Where the hottest race in town is Kaufman for Coroner and surely Twin Peaks is around the next bend.

EchoHawk drives to unwind. He likes it best on night roads, says an aide, talking out the day and chewing sunflower seeds.

When talking about his life, it is an unbeatable story. He is the fifth of six children born to Ernest EchoHawk, an itinerant oil field surveyor who chased his trade from Wyoming to New Mexico.

At 7, Larry EchoHawk was holding Dad's surveying poles. It wasn't an unhappy, hungry, dirt-floor childhood, he remembers. But there were three brothers to a bed.

Blessedly, it also was a time of civil stirrings in America. The Kennedys were speaking inspirations. Martin Luther King was on the march. The Office of Economic Opportunity had funds for minority educations--so six children went to college and OEO bought law degrees for the brothers EchoHawk.

A Mormon by family conversion--part of his father's recovery from alcohol--Larry EchoHawk won a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, as defensive back. Law studies at the University of Utah. Then counsel for the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, state representative, county prosecutor and attorney general in 1990.

It has left him a grateful, unblinking idealist.

"I think visionary about what we can become," he says. Black. Latino. Asian. Native American or white. "There is a lot of goodness and opportunity in America and I have realized it with my life.

"When I spoke at the Democratic Convention . . . I made a statement that says a lot about who I am. 'I have seen what was, but I see very clearly what we all can become.' "

Like parents, like son: Larry EchoHawk, 46, and wife Terry also have six children. Of course they are answering campaign phones, distributing stickers and wearing buttons for Dad.

They also are learning his philosophy of giving.

"It is Indian tradition," EchoHawk explains. "Something called 'giveaway.' In times of celebration, in times of mourning, you show strength and character by giving what you have to other people.

"To me, that's the great thing about public office . . . the chance to give something you have to bless the lives of others. That's the way I was raised as an Indian."

Indian? What of Native American? Or American Indian? EchoHawk says he isn't concerned by the political subscription of terms. He interchanges them.

And he's heard all the slurs, is neither bothered nor amused by labels, and even laughs off one cruel pejorative: Radical Redskin.

"When I ran for attorney general, there was a presentation packet that my opponent handed out to some business leaders," he recalls. "There was a page . . . about the campaign in terms of 'beads and blankets and braids' and my contributions as 'wampum.' "

Even in this gubernatorial race, EchoHawk knows opposing pollsters are trying to weight voter opinions with "questions about the Native American identity of Larry EchoHawk and was this a factor."

"But I believe that people . . . in Idaho are very much aware of my ethnic background," he says. "What I don't know, is how much of a factor that is."

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The Native American factor of Larry EchoHawk can be split many ways with a variety of consequences.

In Idaho, frankly, nobody gives a damn.

The Boise-based and influential Idaho Statesman has not raised EchoHawk's ethnic background in its editorials. It isn't an issue wherever the candidate meets the press, public audiences or editorial endorsement boards.

"In the minds of the voting public, his being Native American is just a nice little asterisk," says Doug Nilson, professor of politics at Idaho State University.

Much more important, say other observers, is EchoHawk's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--in a state with the largest Mormon population outside of Utah.

In truth, it would not influence the outcome of Tuesday's election if every Coeur d'Alene, Kootenai, Shoshone or Nez Perce in Idaho voted for their Native American son. Or against him. For the state's six tribes represent only 10,000 persons--less than 1% of Idaho's 1 million population.

Three tribes have endorsed EchoHawk; three have not. Some Native Americans are openly speaking against his candidacy.

For as attorney general he drafted legislation banning casino-style gambling on Idaho reservations. Says Douglas McConaughey, advocate for the Shoshone-Paiute tribe: "The Shoshone-Bannock tribe, which was $1 million in the hole at the time, were among those who felt betrayed."

With a Pawnee father and German mother, EchoHawk isn't fully Native American. Pawnee are non-Idahoan. Then there is that matter of great-grandfather's career and the cavalry's indelicate contribution to the Indian Wars.

"We have our differences with Larry EchoHawk," says Charles Hayes, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal council. "There is a sense of honor and pride that he might be elected. But also real frustration."

And EchoHawk accepts that in rural Idaho with populations of redneck lumberjacks and white supremacists, "any kind of plus vote that I would get from the Native American community would be offset by some people . . . who have anti-Indian sentiment."

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Despite its fuzzy focus, world and national attention on EchoHawk's Native American heritage certainly has stirred unexpected benefits to the campaign and its $1-million war chest.

Director Steven Spielberg has contributed $2,000. A check from Robert Redford is expected. Dustin Hoffman has given $50,000.

(Campaign comedians have interpreted Hoffman's donation as redemption money. For it was Hoffman, in the title role of the movie "Little Big Man," who growled, "It was a band of Pawnee what attacked us . . . I ain't had no use for Pawnee ever since.")

A downside to the international spotlight: Opponents claim EchoHawk, a recognized Friend of Bill now endorsed by Hollywood, might be more interested in a federal future. Even a vice presidency. Ergo, to hell with Idaho.

EchoHawk denies it. He says his ambitions are here, now and for as long as Idaho voters want him. He does not apologize for ties to the President--who once placed him on a short list for Secretary of the Interior--and notes his disagreement with Clinton on the disposal of nuclear waste and the deep federal thirst for Idaho water.

Of benefit to all Idahoans, he adds, is that Clinton returns his phone calls.

An upside to global fascination: It has almost buried EchoHawk's opponents.

Republican Phil Batt says he has started to feel like Whatsisname, the second man to walk on the moon.

"People certainly don't come to see this farmer from Wilder," he complained before a recent debate. "If it hadn't been for all this attention, all this notoriety, I'd have had (EchoHawk) on the floor by now."

EchoHawk, by his own analysis, wears no party collar.

"I'm out of step with the party line on a number of things," he explains. "One that always comes up is the abortion issue."

Democrats are typically pro-choice. EchoHawk supports abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when a mother's life is endangered.

"In the primary that was a major issue," he says. "But I got 74% of the vote in a three-way race . . . there are many Democrats that are pretty conservative in this state."

Although reared as a Mormon, he is opposing an anti-gay rights measure on the November ballot on constitutional grounds.

"What I teach my family, what I teach my children, (is) that the homosexual lifestyle is not appropriate for us," he says. "But if one of my children ever adopted that lifestyle, I would not want anyone to treat them in a hateful manner. I am very sensitive to discrimination."

The Brady Bill and bans on military-style assault rifles were birthed by Democrats--but EchoHawk the fly fisherman and elk hunter insists that "gun control is not an effective deterrent to crime. . . . I don't think the Brady Bill is going to have a significant impact on efforts to curb criminals."

Landon Curry, professor of political science at the University of Idaho, applauds the novelty of this mix. And its maker.

"He is a Native American who doesn't look like a Native American," Curry says. "He's a Democrat who doesn't sound like a Democrat . . . and being Mormon is going to attract a lot of Republican crossover votes.

"He's clean. He stays aloof from nit-picking. He won't lead with his ego . . . and so what comes out of his mouth seems to be deeply believed, very personal convictions."

Of course he is not a candidate without flaws. EchoHawk admits that he needs to bring more smiles and animation to his public appearances--especially on television.

Public debates, he says, still build flutters worse than fears felt before the first hit of a football game. He is shy when working Main Street. He is intelligent without being an intellectual, and some campaign minders softly criticize him for ignoring the professional advice he pays for.

"He's simply not a candidate," says one counsel. "In this age of cynical politicians he is neither cynical nor a politician.

"He's such a decent person, he makes the mistake of thinking everybody else is. He thinks a campaign should be about issues, not personal attacks. So when attacked, he doesn't quite know how to respond."

One such assault describes three strikes and you're out, EchoHawk style. It holds that he will fail in Idaho because he's Mormon, a Democrat and Native American.

The candidate, for once, knows how to respond.

He says being an underdog in Idaho has historic advantage. After all, voters chose Moses Alexander in 1914 when Idaho became the first state to elect a Jew as governor.

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The Maxima and Highway 12 are following wooded curves of the Clearwater River. Fishermen in dories cast for steelheads. EchoHawk wishes he was among them. An eagle at 9 o'clock surfs river thermals and hunts with its eyes.

It all gives EchoHawk an easy segue into his sense of nature, yet another cultural carry-over to his politics.

He has a spiritual respect for land and free-flowing rivers, forests and wildlife, and knows that preserving their sanctity defends the future of any state.

Especially outdoors Idaho.

"Like the issue of endangered salmon," he says. "I sense from listening to my opponents that it is more an economic issue to them.

"I seem to be the only candidate that says these are magnificent animals. They swim a thousand miles from the oceans to the spawning areas of Idaho. And they are a creation that ought to be protected."

From his parents, from his family and its religious faith, comes a belief in the social strength instilled by united homes.

He believes children are every community's most precious resource. To be protected against sexual abuse. To deserve more in beginning years than drugs, single parents, gangs and latchkey lives. In fact, to be given the educational opportunities he received.

As a law enforcer, EchoHawk was touched by his prosecution of an 18-year-old jailed for life for raping, beating, strangling and burning a woman. By a 14-year-old cop killer. By witnessing the final breath of a murderer executed in Idaho by lethal injection.

"I went there out of a strong sense of duty," he says. The always-quiet voice is down to a whisper. "The people elected me to this position of attorney general and I wouldn't have felt right if I'd just sent a deputy attorney general in that spot."

His impression of that moment will be lifelong.

"At one time he was a young man that showed some promise in his life," EchoHawk relates. "He was loved by his parents. But he'd gotten off track, fallen prey to drugs and lost control of his life.

"When he started to go astray, family, friends and society failed to get him back. And then he commits society's ultimate crime and brutally murders two people. It's a very sad situation . . . not only what happens to the victims, but in the waste of other lives."

So he supports the death penalty. At least, for murders with special, violent, premeditated circumstances.

If elected, EchoHawk predicts an expansion of familiar pressures. It's the baggage of being Native American and has haunted him since becoming attorney general.

"I felt like a lot of eyes were on me," he remembers. "So I couldn't fail . . . because if I got into the job and fell flat on my face, it would be more difficult for the next Native American. Or the next minority.

"It was very important to do a good job so that next time, if an Hispanic ran for attorney general, people would say: 'Hey, EchoHawk did a good job, let's elect this guy.' "

Excessive scrutiny, he says, is a price he willingly pays for the satisfaction of being a role model.

"When I was growing up, there were very few role models for my generation to look to," he says. "As attorney general, I've tried to take the opportunity to speak to young people and minority populations and give them a positive message about what they can be."

Yet there is more to Idaho than unserved minorities.

Graffiti and gangs have begun. Crack dealers recently arrested in Boise had moved from Los Angeles. The Air Force wants to build an air-to-ground gunnery range in the state. An eight-year drought has produced dry, cracked reservoirs.

So wherever the EchoHawk Express pauses, from a canoe camp on the Clearwater to a University of Idaho alumni breakfast, the candidate thumps a platform only for Idaho.

After 15 debates to date, opponents and campaign reporters smile wearily as EchoHawk encores his psalm for the state. But they can only add an amen.

"Idaho is what America once was . . . and what America wants to be," he preaches. "Idaho is, simply, the last best place in America to live and raise a family.

"I want to keep it that way."

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