Gov. Racicot: Rising GOP Star in the Big Sky State

Polls show the first-term Republican governor, with a folksy style and nonpartisan approach, could take the Democratic Senate seat in 1996

THE governor drives his own four-year old Chevy, lists his home telephone number in the phone book, and strikes up pen-pal relationships with school kids -- which may not be unusual in a state with three times as many cows as people and where anybody can be on a first-name basis with the state's chief executive and expect him to remember it.

But first-term Gov. Marc Racicot (R) of Montana is also increasingly being quoted in the national press. President Clinton recently lauded him as a leader on welfare reform. And at a time when most incumbent politicians are grateful to have half their constituents say they're doing a good job, he enjoys phenomenal approval ratings in the polls -- despite taking stands that many voters might disagree with.

Little more than two years ago, Mr. Racicot (pronounced ''Roscoe''), a one-term state attorney general who had failed in his first three tries for public office, jumped in at the last minute when the GOP incumbent pulled out of the election. He then came from behind to win by a whisker-thin margin in the race for governor.

Now he is fast becoming a rising star on the national stage. Republican officials in Washington are keeping a close eye on him as a potential candidate to boost the GOP majority in the United States Senate in 1996.

''It would certainly be great to see him get in the race,'' says Gordon Hensley, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Montana is a prime target for GOP strategists, Mr. Hensley says, adding: ''We plan to be extremely involved in seeing that the Republican candidate has the resources to win.''

If the '96 senate race were held today in Montana, Racicot could easily beat three-term incumbent Max Baucus (D), according to a December poll. In addition to besting Senator Baucus 54 percent to 35 percent, Racicot also captured a chart-busting 79 percent approval rating among Montanans.

Personal appeal

Political observers here attribute this to his moderate stance on most issues, his personal approachability, and his aversion to strident partisanship.

''Racicot could run for king,'' said pollster Del Ali of Political/Media Research, Inc., the Washington-based firm that conducted the mock election and popularity poll for a newspaper chain.

''It's almost baffling it's so good,'' says University of Montana political scientist Michael Laslovich, speaking of Racicot's popularity. ''Here's a man who publicly supported the sales tax [which voters rejected last year in a referendum]. In Montana, that's almost the anti-Christ.''

In addition, Mr. Laslovich says, Racicot opposes abortion and signed into law restrictions on the medical procedure -- which earned him a rhetorical blast from the National Abortion Rights Action League.

It's not that Mr. Baucus is so unpopular. He beats every other Republican against whom he's matched in what-if polls. His own approval rating -- 50 percent -- is not bad for a career politician in these days of anti-incumbency, especially in a state where 70 percent of those polled say fellow Democrat Clinton is not doing a good job.

But late last month, the Cook Political Report stated that ''17 months before the '96 elections, the media sages and party strategists in Washington have concluded that Baucus is the most vulnerable Senate incumbent of the cycle.''

Deficit hawk

When Racicot took office, Montana faced a budget deficit of more than $200 million. Today, thanks to savings in Racicot's budget, the state enjoys a $25 million surplus, which is big bucks in a state with fewer than 900,000 people. (Montana is the fourth largest state geographically but only 44th in population.)

Revenue increases from a healthy state economy also have helped wipe out the deficit. In rating state economies recently, State Policy Research, Inc. put Montana fourth in terms of growth in jobs and personal income.

In addition, Racicot benefited from having a legislature dominated by Republicans in both houses who are generally more conservative than he is. ''He became a champion for a number of groups that had relied on the Democratic Party in the past, including higher education,'' Laslovich says.

Racicot's moderate image is further enhanced by his willingness to credit Democrats. He says of the Clinton administration, which recently approved 72 waivers of federal regulations so that Montana's welfare reform plan could proceed, ''we've had a positive and productive relationship.''

Even those who may not have voted for Racicot say they like him. Even those who may not have voted for Racicot say they like him. ''He's an exceptional politician,'' says professor Laslovich (a Democrat) with admiration in his voice.

''I kind of like him even though I didn't vote for him,'' says Judy Barker of Missoula, Mont. ''He's a great speaker -- really comfortable with people -- and he's a good listener too.''

Brad Martin, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, accuses Racicot of being ''missing in action'' on some key issues during the recent legislative session. But in a state where voters don't register by party and labels mean less than reputation, Mr. Martin describes his job of promoting Democrats as ''definitely tough.''

In an interview in his capital office in Helena, Racicot says he's far from deciding whether to make a run for the US Senate.

''We weren't even supposed to be here,'' he jokes, referring to his less-than-overwhelming win in 1992. ''I've thought all along that you should just keep your eye on the ball and do your job and everything else will work out.''

Insiders say Racicot has considerable concern for the effect a move back East would have on family life. He and his wife Theresa have five children. In a state that likes to think of itself as ''the way America used to be'' (a stock phrase from Racicot speeches), a reluctance to move to Washington makes him all the more attractive to Montanans.

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