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Schweitzer is one of the great, over-the-top showmen of American politics, sort of like Bill Clinton on methedrine. He's a tall man with a wide open face and a flat northern-plains accent, who keeps up a steady patter of rowdy stories and observations and is perpetually accompanied by his border collie, Jag, which has become a major celebrity in Montana. The Brian Schweitzer Show is so entertaining--he has been featured on everything from 60 Minutes to The Colbert Report--that it's easy to overlook the substance of the man. Schweitzer has a master's in soil science from Montana State University and spent seven years building irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia. He speaks fluent Arabic and has a sophisticated grasp of Middle Eastern politics and the history of oil. Last summer I watched Schweitzer deploy all this information--plus his familiarity with biology and chemistry, plus maps and charts and assorted biofuel samples--in a colloquial, anecdotal and entirely accessible 40-minute luncheon talk at the Lions Club of Helena. "Now here's how Montana is going to save the world," he proclaimed at one point. "We are the Saudi Arabia of coal," he said, and began an elaborate description of how coal can be turned into a clean-burning liquid fuel and how that fuel, plus biofuels made from agricultural products (he drives a Volkswagen that runs on biodiesel) plus conservation, can completely eliminate the need for imported oil. (Schweitzer has since received commitments from two major companies to build coal-gasification plants in Montana.)
Later I asked Schweitzer how a Democrat could sell that energy pitch in a presidential campaign. "I can do it in a 60-second spot," he said. "Put me on the clock." And he was off to the races: "Folks, we've got a problem. We Americans use 6.5 billion bbl. of oil a year. We produce 2.5 billion ourselves. We import 4 billion from the world's worst dictators. We need to stop doing that. We can save 1 billion bbl. through conservation. Things like more efficient cars, homes and appliances. We can produce another 1 billion bbl. of biofuels with agricultural crops like corn, soybeans and canola. We can produce 2 billion bbl. a year turning our enormous coal reserves to clean-burning gas. We can achieve energy independence in 10 years, create a whole new industry with tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and you'll never have to send your grandchildren to war in the Middle East. I'm Brian Schweitzer, and I approved this message."
He did it in about 40 seconds, according to my clock, but he was speed rapping. Which raises the question of Schweitzer's own presidential ambitions. "Heck, I just got elected in 2004," he told me last summer. "I've got to make this energy thing work in Montana first." In fact, the real flaw in the Rocky Mountain Blue electoral fantasies is that the Democrats' leading candidates, especially the junior Senator from New York, elicit groans in the Rockies. "I just don't get this Obama thing, either," says Orbanek, the Grand Junction newspaper publisher. New Mexico's popular Latino Governor Bill Richardson will probably try in 2008, but Richardson has spent most of his career in Washington and sometimes tries a bit too hard at playing the Western card: his cowboy boots are ostrich skin, which is permissible but fancy. Richardson certainly can't compete with Republicans John McCain or Mitt Romney, either of whom would easily sweep the region.