FARGO, N.D. — It may well have been the bologna sandwich that spun Big Eddie "the Redhead" Schultz down the path of self-enlightenment, transforming him from a bull-neck, bombastic conservative into a bull-neck, bombastic liberal just itching to grab his talk radio mike and give Rush Limbaugh hell.
But that story will have to wait.
"The Ed Schultz Show" is about to air.
Schultz swings into his seat as his producer counts down 10 seconds until the live broadcast opens. He clamps on his headphones as the taped introduction rolls: "From high above the North American continent, democracy has a new voice. Powerful. Passionate. Persistent."
Schultz lets out an enormous yawn, then swings the microphone toward him. He's on.
"Lock and load, baby," he booms. "If it's got mad cow, I love beef so much I'll still eat it."
He's still chortling at his own quip as he introduces his first guest: conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
For this, Democratic politicians helped solicit $1.8 million from private donors, enough cash to keep the brand-new "Ed Schultz Show" on the air for at least two years. It's not a whim. It's a mission. Democrats are counting on Schultz -- a onetime sportscaster who used to mock the homeless on the air -- to anchor the AM dial nationwide as the provocative new voice of the left.
Well, maybe not exactly the left. Schultz, 49, has voted for only one Democrat that he can recall, a local congressman. He's opposed to abortion in all circumstances. He considers Buchanan a friend. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, he says, gives him "the willies."
He's prone to say things like: "I'd like to see the president get all the illegals out of the country, so we can start all over again."
And yet, thanks to that bologna sandwich, Schultz considers himself "a gun-toting, meat-eating leftie."
"This is the most selfish generation in the history of the country!" he shouted into his mike when a caller asked him about the federal deficit. His eyes were closed, his face was red and his hands slashed at the air. "The people lining the Bush campaign's pockets are running this country. The little guys don't have a say anymore."
Then Big Eddie looked up and winked. When he gets in a good one, he likes everyone to notice. "Hey," he'll call over to his producer at a commercial break, "that was a pretty good pip on Bush, wasn't it?"
Though his irreverent, raucous style sounds familiar, Schultz's assaults on the Bush administration sharply contrast with the conservative commentary that dominates the radio airwaves. While Limbaugh was calling former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill "childish" for criticizing President Bush in a new book, Schultz was gleefully trumpeting O'Neill's harshest comments. While Limbaugh was mocking O'Neill as deaf and blind to reality -- "the Helen Keller of the Cabinet" -- Schultz was dredging out clips of the president praising his treasury secretary as a "straight shooter."
"By God, Ed, you're doing good stuff, trying to get the truth out," liberal Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told him on the air.
Limbaugh's comments, of course, commanded a much larger audience. He draws 15 million listeners a week, on 600 stations nationwide.
Schultz's show, which premiered Jan. 5, currently airs on just a dozen stations, mostly in small towns like Steamboat Springs, Colo., Brownwood, Texas, and Needles, Calif. Its biggest market is Oklahoma City. (It's also broadcast live on XM satellite radio and online, though the server crashes often, at www.bigeddieradio.com.)
Ratings won't be available for several months. Still, Schultz's backers say they're confident his show will take off. "Democracy is best served," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, "by having many voices on the air."
Getting those voices on the air has long been a Democratic Party goal.
Former Vice President Al Gore is leading an effort to develop a left-leaning cable TV channel. Another group is raising funds to buy radio stations in big cities to air liberal-friendly programming, including a show by comedian and bestselling author Al Franken.
"The Ed Schultz Show" has been promoted by a third coalition, Democracy Radio. Executive Director Tom Athans surveyed national talk radio last year and found that more than 2,000 stations broadcast conservative shows, while fewer than 80 aired liberal programs.
What's more, only a handful of the liberal hosts drew good ratings.
At the top of that very small pack was Schultz.
A much-loved (and much-hated) sportscaster famed for his raucous play-by-play of North Dakota college football, Schultz grew up in Virginia, but moved to the Midwest to study -- and play quarterback -- at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. His passing skills earned him tryouts with the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. When he didn't make the cut, he switched to reporting games from the sideline. He still has a football player's brawny build, though his red hair is thinning.