Putting the Big Sky In a Populist Frame

Sen. John F. Kerry, right, met with Montana's Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, second from right, in Helena last month to discuss state and national issues.
Sen. John F. Kerry, right, met with Montana's Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, second from right, in Helena last month to discuss state and national issues. (By John Ebelt -- Independent Record Via Associated Press)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

BUTTE, Mont. -- The Democratic governor of this red state was discussing his "God-given" political gifts while seated in his gubernatorial aircraft.

"You know, if John Kerry could do what I do, he'd be president," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who was a mint farmer until last November and is now being talked about as the kind of brassy populist the Democrats need to win back the White House.

Schweitzer, broad of shoulder, red of face and sure of self, was barnstorming in Big Sky country -- four towns in 11 hours, sweet-talking local Republicans, praising random Montanans for the excellence of their dogs and slapping backs in barrooms. He was advertising all that he has done for the 917,000 people of his state since they elected him as their first Democratic governor in 16 years. Schweitzer won by four percentage points, while Kerry lost here to President Bush by 20 points.

In the airplane between the mining town of Butte and the ranching town of Dillon, Schweitzer raised the altitude of his pronouncements and diagnosed the Big Picture: how Democrats could change their losing ways, seize the levers of power and be, well, like him.

"Be likable, be self-deprecating, don't be a know-it-all using a lot of big words," said Schweitzer, 50, who mixes plain speaking with ranch dressing: blue jeans, a bolo tie, cowboy boots and, always somewhere nearby, a border collie named Jag.

"In politics, it doesn't matter what the facts are," he said. "It matters what the perceptions are. It is the way you frame it."

In Montana, he continued, the best way to frame an issue is to get horses and guns into the picture. Schweitzer arrived at this epiphany, he said, after getting beaten in 2000 in a race against Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).

That was Schweitzer's first go at elective politics and, in the wound-licking that followed, he found that men in Montana were 11 percent less likely to vote for him than were women. For his gubernatorial campaign, Schweitzer hired focus groups to find out why.

He learned that a significant percentage of Montana men are mule-headed, unwilling to change their minds on issues, even when presented with information showing that their views are not supported by facts.

"So, I started doing my ads while I was sitting on a horse or holding a gun," Schweitzer said. "I spoke to men visually and showed them I am like them. Hell, I can be on a horse and talk about health care.

"Ninety percent of them don't ride horses and many of them don't shoot a gun, but my ads said visually that I understand Montana. My gender gap disappeared. I think I have just summed up why Democrats lose elections."

Schweitzer had something else to add about Kerry, who had visited him here in Montana just the week before.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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