Reporter's Notebook: Big Gun Country

Montana Governor Weighs Democrats' '08 Chances

Reporter's Notebook By TEDDY DAVIS

April 7, 2008 —

"Have you ever held a gun before?"

That's what the governor of Montana asked me last week when I visited his home in Helena, Mt.

Before I could finish my quip about having once gone skeet-shooting off the back of a cruise ship, the governor had retrieved a (loaded) 30.06 Savage rifle with a scope as well as a Smith & Wesson .38 stainless handgun with a laser site (or, as he liked to call it, his "little James Bond gun").

While arming a reporter in your living room may seem like odd behavior, it was not entirely surprising coming from Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Described by the founder of the liberal Daily Kos blog as "a genuine version of Bush's fake ranch," Schweitzer is the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years.

On the same November day in 2004 that Montana backedPresident Bush by 20 points, Schweitzer scored a four-point win of his own.

He owes the win in large part to his "regular guy" image and conservative stance on guns.

Now, with only three years in office under his belt, Schweitzer, who is neutral in the current presidential race, is sometimes mentioned by pundits as a possible running mate for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Like the Democratic presidential front-runner, Schweitzer came out early against the Iraq War and has sworn off PAC money.

Despite a political profile that could help underscore the Democrats' determination to win in traditionally Republican areas, it is easier to imagine the blunt-speaking Schweitzer making his own presidential run in 2012 than it is to see him playing second fiddle this year.

While Schweitzer has not proposed his own universal health care plan in Montana, he believes Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is right to have endorsed a mandate on the national level.

By not requiring individuals to purchase insurance, Schweitzer believes Obama's plan to forbid insurance companies to deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions will lead to healthy people opting out and sick people opting in.

"You've got to get everyone in the system," said Schweitzer.

He is dismayed that Obama cast a vote for President Bush's 2005 energy bill while regularly criticizing the president on the issue.

"Sounds like Senate-speak," said Schweitzer.

He also takes issue with Obama for his statement to environmental groups last year in which he pledged not to support the development of any coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels.

Schweitzer, who has focused on the development of clean coal as governor, believes the 20 percent benchmark might be achievable. But even if coal-to-liquid fuels cannot be made any cleaner than conventional fuels, Schweitzer believes Obama should embrace coal as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on imported petroleum.

If Schweitzer were running for president, he says he would spend $100 billion on research and development into carbon sequestration technology.

"It sounds like a lot until you consider that we're spending $1 billion a day in Iraq," said Schweitzer.

Schweitzer supports Obama's call for an end to U.S. fighting in Iraq. But the Montana governor disagrees with Obama on the wisdom of long-term bases.

While Obama opposes leaving U.S. troops in Iraq to blunt the influence of neighboring countries, Schweitzer sees long-term U.S. bases in Iraq functioning as a "tripwire" against a broader regional war.

As an uncommitted superdelegate and popular chief executive, Schweitzer's endorsement is a coveted one. Just last week, he was lobbied to back Obama by former eBay executive Steve Westly.

But don't look for an endorsement until after June 3: Schweitzer plans to back the winner of Montana's last-in-the-nation primary.

While he thinks either Obama or Clinton running on his or her own has a 50-50 shot of winning the White House against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, Schweitzer doesn't think either Democrat can take Montana.

Asked why not, he had a one word answer: "Guns."

ABC News' Talal Al-Khatib and Jacqueline Klingebiel contributed to this report.