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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Racicot Plays New Role for Old Pal

Spokesman: Bush's friend and fellow governor has attacked Florida's recounts with a fervor that surprises some Montanans.

November 22, 2000|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — He's the Western governor who has used a measured voice to deliver almost mournful indictments of the ongoing Florida recount.

With most of the usual Bush spokespeople out of camera range, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (say: Ros-koe) has became the face of Republican outrage from the Bush camp in Austin.

"What's going on is, in effect, a thousand acts of discretion," he said in an interview Tuesday. "I don't think it's a process that the American people would be comfortable with if they saw how it is being conducted."

One of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's closest political friends, the 52-year-old father of five has long been mentioned as a possible choice for secretary of the Interior. He is at the tail end of his second and final term as Montana's chief--prevented from running again by term limits.

But it wasn't until after the election that Racicot came out front and center, appearing in the tricky role of anti-recount attack dog--calling the goings-on in Florida "flawed and inaccurate" and "completely untrustworthy." It's a side of him that has taken some of his fellow Montanans aback.

'It's Not How You Usually Think of Him'

"His emergence isn't especially surprising--we've been more or less expecting it if Bush were elected," said Dan Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. "But some of the ways in which he has emerged, though, have surprised people here. It's not how you usually think of him."

How do they usually think of him?

His home number is published in the Helena, Mont., phone book. His banana bread recipe is posted on the Internet. He is an inductee into his small Roman Catholic college's basketball hall of fame for his court heroics.

Even asked about his athletic accomplishments, Racicot is self-effacing. He quotes his father as telling him: "You may not be big, but you are slow."

But his governorship has been marked by serious moments as well.

He visited a death row inmate after the condemned man requested the meeting, calling the experience--and the decision to let the execution go forward--the "most searing" of his life.

But Racicot said it was essential to his own beliefs that he grant the man's request to talk to him.

"If I could not listen to him and then understand what it was that he wanted to present, I didn't have the full benefit of all the information available to me," Racicot explained.

Although he has a nice-guy reputation, Racicot also is known for being an ambitious politician. For years he had been known for his nonpartisan ways, but Montanans say a different Racicot emerged this summer during the devastating wildfires that destroyed a Delaware-size portion of his state.

Racicot blamed the Clinton administration, saying its policies let the situation get out of hand.

It was a position disputed by other observers and parks officials who say the wildfire epidemic had its roots in more than a century of poor land management. The controversy propelled Racicot to the national stage. He often appeared on the talk-show circuit as a counterpoint to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

He has fought other hard battles with environmentalists in his state who say he invariably puts the concerns of the logging and mining industries first, a charge he calls unfounded.

Someone needed to take on the attack role, said veteran GOP operative Dan Schnur, and a fellow governor fit the bill.

"If you're the Bush campaign, you want someone who has more stature than a staffer, who isn't quite at the James Baker statesman level. You wouldn't want Baker to get this down and dirty."

Friendship Begun at National Meeting

Racicot's relationship with Bush dates back five years, when the two met at a national conference for governors. The pair hit it off and got to know each other better via the telephone.

In December 1998, Racicot accompanied Bush, along with fellow Republican Govs. Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts and Mike Leavitt of Utah, on a fact-finding trip to Israel.

More recently, Racicot was one of the principal organizers of the Republican governors' barnstorming tour of the country on Bush's behalf, conducted in the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

He said the latest assist he has provided his fellow governor "doesn't involve a lot of mystery." Bush campaign chairman Don Evans, well aware of Racicot's legal experience as Montana's attorney general, wanted him on the ground in Texas to advise the staff and their candidate.

"I thought I was going to be doing some legal work--mostly research and keeping him advised," he said. "They thought I could speak to the issue, and I said I'd be comfortable doing that."

Others, though, say it is a side of Racicot they had rarely seen until this election.

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