MARYSVILLE, Mont. — 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.
He says neither fits.
"I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I'm not senile enough to be in the Senate," sums up Schweitzer, adding he prefers to be in charge than pay homage to congressional seniority rules.
Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling has included Schweitzer in several early 2016 takes in presidential primary states, where the governor generally finishes toward the back of the pack.
It's clear Schweitzer is considering a run, though he quickly discusses things that could get in the way.
"If Hillary runs, she walks away with the nomination and then beats whichever Republican," Schweitzer said of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "It's lights out."
Montana Republicans beaten many times by Schweitzer don't think his "rural cowboy" formula of appealing to voters on guns and coal will play out of state.
"He has built his career in Montana on sounding like a Republican when he wants to. The Democratic presidential primary electorate in is not interested in that message," said Bowen Greenwood, the state Republican Party executive director.
On the road – including stops this year in early primary states – Schweitzer uses his high-energy speaking style to rouse audiences against the Afghan war and to tout energy independence.
Humor columnist Dave Barry called Schweitzer "a wild man" after Schweitzer wowed him with a graphic lesson on cattle castration at the Democratic National Convention. Barry wrote after the bar-side encounter that "if we don't elect this man, at bare minimum, president of the United States, we are even stupider than I think we are."
University of Montana political scientist James Lopach said the governor could be tapped for an Obama administration post if the politics of a second term require a centrist on energy or agriculture issues. The potential for a longshot run at president in 2016 remains.
"He is kind of bigger than life, the media like that, and he might be able to get a lot of early media exposure," Lopach said.
On the tour of his ranch, a reporter had to gun a four-wheeler to keep up with the governor.
The ponds are stocked with trout Schweitzer bought from a former Constitution Party legislator who was rarely a friend to the administration. Schweitzer kicks up Native American arrowheads next to a stream.
He tells the story of how he bought his wife a pistol so she wouldn't be afraid to use the outhouse at night because of wolves and bears. And he loves a laugh, suggesting a reporter urinate on an electric fence to see if it was powered up.
Does that really electrocute? his visitor asked.
"What do you think?" Schweitzer said with a big laugh.