MARYSVILLE, Mont. (AP) — A day spent with Montana's Brian Schweitzer riding four-wheelers and talking politics makes it easy to understand why he's one of the most unusual — and most effective — governors in the country.
At his ranch — and anywhere else — Schweitzer, a popular Democrat in a conservative state, never misses a chance to leave a lasting, even outlandish, impression. He loves every minute of it, including speculation about his political future once he steps down because of term limits in January.
The former scientist and mint farmer is proud of his off-the-grid getaway: He built its spring-fed fishing ponds, rigged the plumbing system, designed the rudimentary battery-and-solar-powered panel for the log cabin 40 miles from Helena. It has no cellphone service.
"Plus I'm well-armed," adds Schweitzer, who hangs a gun on his office wall despite a gun ban in the Capitol.
Earlier this year, Schweitzer stormed New York's Times Square with a bullhorn like a political P.T. Barnum, handing out Montana-made promotional trinkets from a semi-truck. He appeared on Dave Letterman to promote Montana tourism, and the state this year is on a pace to break visitor records.
It's not often that a governor from a rural state with no major media market within 700 miles is considered potential cabinet level or even presidential material. But Schweitzer, 57, is creating that kind of dark horse buzz with a skillfully employed mastery of current affairs and a unique capacity for shameless and entertaining self-promotion.
At the Democratic National Convention, Schweitzer slammed Mitt Romney during a prime-time speech for a record hostile to gun owners. Schweitzer acknowledged that particular comment didn't go over well with many big-city Democrats. But it wasn't a mistake — he just had a larger audience in mind.
"I don't necessarily say what pleases the people in the room," Schweitzer said. "I was saying what all the independents out there are thinking, but not hearing."
That style plays well in Montana, a state with a strong libertarian bent where bashing big corporations and government are well received.
For three years, Schweitzer has criticized the federal health care law as an insurance industry giveaway. But he also advocates a single-payer health care system like Canada's.
Schweitzer is a big advocate of coal, and he's not always friendly with environmentalists. But many liberals respect him for his ability to kick Helena Republicans in the shins and come out ahead.
He's adept at getting most of his budget through hostile Republican-controlled Legislatures. Last year, GOP leaders caved in when Schweitzer didn't budge in negotiations. He vetoed a record 130 bills and set many of those bills aflame with a branding iron on the Capitol steps.
Some Democrats hoped he would run for Montana's lone U.S. House seat this cycle, which he spurned. Others worry he could mount a primary challenge in 2014 to Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, with whom he has a prickly relationship.