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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION

Cattle rancher ropes them in

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer electrifies the hall with a speech that boosts him into the national arena.

August 27, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — It was Hillary Rodham Clinton's night at the Democratic National Convention, but party activists got a glimpse Tuesday of a surprising new breakout star: a jovial, round-faced warrior with a bolo tie who managed to attack Republicans while keeping a smile on his face.

The unlikely partisan gladiator was Brian Schweitzer, who in 2004 became Montana's first Democratic governor in decades.

Schweitzer, 52, won his office by eschewing partisanship -- campaigning as a pro-gun conservative with a Republican running mate. But on Tuesday he raised the roof at the Pepsi Center by exhorting thousands of party activists to "get off your hind end" and cheer for the demise of GOP rule.

"Can we afford four more years of the same?" asked Schweitzer, bouncing on the convention hall stage as his eyes darted around and his hands waved.

"No!" the crowd roared in unison.

Schweitzer electrified the hall moments before Clinton took the stage.

His appearance in a coveted time slot during network television coverage easily overshadowed a staid keynote address delivered earlier by former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Senate candidate who was expected to play a starring role here.

And it couldn't have come at a better time for the Democrats -- just when Barack Obama needs to start connecting with the kind of white, rural and working-class voters that might be inclined to listen to Schweitzer.

A cattle rancher who strode into office wearing cowboy boots, Schweitzer has succeeded by connecting with the values of Western voters. Yet he also embraces key Democratic policies, supporting abortion rights, energy conservation and environmental regulation.

And while the Bush administration was pushing to expand surveillance powers with the Patriot Act, Schweitzer pardoned 78 Montanans, most of them German immigrants, who had been convicted of sedition during World War I.

His speech focused on energy. Schweitzer accused the Bush White House and Republican candidate John McCain of rewarding the oil and gas industry with tax breaks and failing to embrace alternative solutions such as wind power.

It was purely partisan red meat on a pocketbook issue -- exactly what some Democratic strategists have said was lacking from the convention when the sagging economy is at the forefront of voters' minds.

And in talking about energy, Schweitzer was taking on an issue that has in recent weeks benefited the Republicans, with polls showing that the public agrees with McCain's call for expanded domestic oil and gas drilling.

The McCain camp hit back, accusing Schweitzer of being deceitful in claiming that the Republican candidate opposed alternative energy.

Such jousting is new for Schweitzer. But then again, so is a nationally televised speech that draws thunderous applause and makes him a national figure. And, as Obama experience shows, a memorable convention speech can do wonders for a political career.

--

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.

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