Democrats Have Eyes on Red-State Governor

Times Staff Writer

Just about everywhere Gov. Brian Schweitzer goes in Montana -- or elsewhere, for that matter -- he brings along a dog, a black rock and a small vial of clear, nearly odorless fluid.

The dog is his 2-year-old border collie, Jag, an obedient, camera-friendly companion who helps fill out the down-home image honed by the Democratic governor, who wears jeans, bolo ties and boots to most events.

The rock is a lump of coal, about 120 billion tons of which sits just beneath the lonesome plains of eastern Montana. And the fluid is a synthetic fuel derived from the coal.

Coals-to-fuel, says the governor, a soils scientist who lived in the Middle East for eight years in the 1980s, will be “the greatest boon to engineering and technology since NASA was created” in the late 1950s. With Montana coal, the U.S. could unleash itself from “the sheiks, the dictators, the rats and crooks around the world who are bent on destroying our way of life.”

The burly, jolly Schweitzer could just as well be selling snake oil, to hear some of his critics tell it. One environmental group dismisses his promise of earth-friendly coal development this way: “The term ‘clean coal’ is like saying ‘safe cigarettes.’ ”


But while the coal remains largely untapped, the 50-year-old Schweitzer is not going unnoticed.

A Democrat in a conservative state that gave George W. Bush nearly 60% of the vote in the last two presidential elections, Schweitzer is riding a wave of popularity here: 68% approval ratings in one recent independent poll. Another poll, by the Montana Chamber of Commerce, found that 57% believed the state government was headed in the right direction, whereas only 47% felt that way about the state’s economy.

Schweitzer’s success rankles GOP leaders here -- “all hat and no cattle,” one says of his showmanship; another calls him “a loose cannon.”

But it intrigues some Democrats, who wonder whether Schweitzer is the sort of red-state national candidate who could help the party break beyond the “blue zone” of electoral votes that has kept it out of the White House in the last two elections. (Democrats have won along the West Coast, and in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, but endured a virtual shutout in the South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain states.)

Schweitzer is one of several red-state Democratic leaders who may emerge as either presidential or vice presidential contenders. Others include Mark R. Warner, who just finished his term-limited four-year stint as governor of Virginia with strong approval ratings that helped his lieutenant governor win the race to succeed him, and Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s governor.

Democrats may well consider someone to “break the mold” on their national ticket, said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster. “There certainly is a feeling that they need someone who can really relate to voters in that huge belt of red.”

So far, Schweitzer certainly seems to have demonstrated one natural politician’s gift: that of being able to frame the question. No matter what he gets asked about, whether the war in Iraq or gay marriage or abortion rights, he somehow manages to point his answer toward a single word: “coal.”

“Why, if we just started with that,” he said of his coal program recently as his plane bumped around the state, “it will lead to all kinds of other good things. Energy independence .... will create jobs. It will spread to education, to developing engineers and to all kinds of other investments.”

It is indeed possible to turn coal into synthetic fuel, with a chemical process that has been tweaked for decades and that was perhaps most notably employed by Nazi Germany once its path to oil was blocked in World War II.

And with the process yielding about two barrels per ton, Montana theoretically could produce 240 billion barrels -- or about 30 years’ worth of the oil now consumed annually in the U.S.

Schweitzer concedes that the coal-to-fuel plan makes sense economically only if the worldwide average price of crude oil remains above about $35 a barrel. Oil is trading at about $69 per barrel now, but until a few years ago it traded at less than $20 per barrel, and some experts project it will fluctuate back down to those levels.

And because there are engineering issues to be worked out, Schweitzer admits, industry firms are not clamoring to build plants.

“Everybody wants to be the first one to build the second plant” is how he optimistically puts it.

Environmentalists also say the process is a long way from the Holy Grail of creating a fuel whose climate-warming carbon could be reliably stripped and even conceivably pumped back underground. Most coal-to-liquid plants create huge pollution problems, they point out.

None of this stops the governor from pushing his state’s product, and his ability to focus the political dialogue here on jobs and the economy has garnered wide attention, from a CBS News “60 Minutes” segment on his plans to a prediction in Roll Call, a bible for Capitol Hill insiders, that he would emerge as “a dark-horse candidate for president in 2008.”

There is even a draft-Schweitzer website urging him to run for president. He swears he has never met or talked to the site’s creators, bloggers from Arizona, California and Maryland. Schweitzer is “the most intelligent, eloquent politician I have seen in a long time,” one says.

Others say he could be a perfect vice presidential candidate, especially to add balance to a ticket headed by, say, a senator from the Northeast.

Schweitzer dismisses speculation about his candidacy for a national office as “kooky” and “silly talk”; he says he’s got “the best job in America” and would be crazy to want to live in the White House, and he notes that his state has “only three electoral votes.”

Strictly speaking, none of that amounts to a categorical denial.

For now, however, Schweitzer is sticking to Montana, with an occasional sighting at a governors meeting in Washington, D.C., or a quick trip to campaign for a fellow Democrat out of state.

Schweitzer particularly seems to enjoy courting Republicans -- so much so that he even selected one to be his running mate as lieutenant governor: John Bohlinger, a courtly, white-haired former state senator from Billings who makes for an entertaining sidekick at gubernatorial events.

Bohlinger, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor and comedian Steve Martin, seems happy to play the two-wild-and-crazy-guys routine: He often smells the vial of liquid coal that Schweitzer, who is often compared in looks to NBC political commentator Tim Russert, holds up to a crowd.

“How is this working? Well, I would say quite well,” said Bohlinger, 69, referring to their cross-party partnership. “Brian’s a very courteous guy. Very charming. He’s really reached out. He listens. We’ve had a real meeting of the minds here.”

Raised in the small central Montana town of Geyser, Schweitzer sold irrigation projects (and, for a time, bull semen) in the Middle East before returning to life as a rancher in the northeastern part of the state. He and his college-sweetheart wife, Nancy, have three teenage children.

In his first bid for political office in 2000, he almost knocked off a U.S. Senate Republican incumbent, Conrad Burns. He won the governor’s race in 2004, following a scandal-scarred Republican. (Burns is running again this year, and is considered vulnerable because he received more donations than anyone else in Congress from groups linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But Schweitzer is not challenging him; he remains neutral in the Democratic primary but pledges to go all out for the nominee.)

At a Rotary Club speech in Helena, Schweitzer said the “beautiful fuel” from coal would help boost Montana’s economy and be a springboard for creation of all kinds of jobs.

“We’re no longer competing just with Idaho,” he told the crowd of about 75. “We’re in competition with India.... Not just with Colorado. We’re in competition with China.”

Schweitzer noticed a man wearing a bolo tie.

“Start with bolo ties,” Schweitzer said to laughs, “next thing you know he’ll be voting for Democrats.”