The Guy in the Promised Land 

The Governor in God's Country

Racicot sojourns in Israel and Washington, DC

By ZACH DUNDAS

Governor Marc Racicot walked in the shadow of greatness and history earlier this month-and we're not necessarily referring to Texas Governor George W. Bush, though he was there, too.

Racicot and Bush, along with fellow Republican chief execs Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts and Mike Leavitt of Utah, journeyed to Israel the first week of December for an educational tour organized by a conservative American Jewish group. In the Holy Land, the gubernatorial quartet visited holy sites, called on the nation's leaders, flew over the territories at the heart of the region's perpetual strategic crisis and, according to Racicot, talked a little shop.

"A trip like this lets you get to know each other a little better," Racicot says. "Although we knew each other pretty well before, we got a chance to talk over some of the common challenges we face."

Beyond that, Racicot says the trip mainly served to advance some tourism and trade initiatives launched with the Israeli consulate in San Francisco last year, as well as his own educational interests. He says that the political plans of "Dubya" Bush, son of the 41st president and consensus darling of the GOP presidential field, weren't on the agenda.

Gov. Marc Racicot


And despite his own stop-over in Washington, DC on the way home, his appearance on CNN's Inside Politics and some glowing press from top-flight liberal pundit Mark Shields, Racicot continues to toss cold water on speculation about his own future as a Republican star.

"To be honest, we didn't discuss political destinies or opportunities that might be opening up for any one of us," Racicot says. "But you couldn't help but notice that everyone in Israel, from Jerusalem to the Golan Heights, took special interest in talking to Governor Bush. They recognize him, certainly, as a potential world leader.

"George himself certainly didn't discuss what he intended to do with his future beyond what he needs to present to his Legislature in January."

Meanwhile, though the presidential guessing game continues to orbit around Bush, Shields, a syndicated columnist and television talking head, suggested an alternative to Republicans hoping to recapture the White House in 2000.

"Republicans could do a lot worse and look a lot farther in 2000 than the governor of Montana," Shields wrote in his weekly column published November 28. "And they probably will." Shields went on to rave about Racicot's roof-raising approval ratings, while noting that Montana-which he dubbed "the Mississippi of the Rockies"-remains mired in economic problems. Racicot, for the record, says he takes exception to Shields' clever nickname for the Last Best Place.

On the heels of Shields' piece and the Israel trip, CNN's Judy Woodruff kicked off Racicot's appearance on the network's political talk show with a blunt question.

"Well," she asked Racicot, "are you the most popular governor in the country?"

Racicot deftly sidestepped the question, saying it would be presumptuous on his part to make any such claim. That bit of modesty is typical of Racicot's approach to the mounting speculation as to exactly what kind of work he'll seek after his second and final term in Helena expires at the end of the century.

Back at work in the statehouse after his trip, Racicot insists he's not being coy about his future.

"It's not that I'm hesitant to discuss my plans," he says. "It's that I honestly don't have any that are even beginning to form. I still have 25 months to try to do the best I can in this job, and I just don't intend to overlook that responsibility.

"The speculation that, after my term is over, I might be part of this larger American political scene, is very flattering. If there were some opportunity to be involved, that would be something I'd consider."

He does, he says, enjoy enhancing Montana's profile by appearing in national forums like Ted Turner's all-news cable circuit.

"I think we bring a little different perspective," he says. "Anyone from outside the Beltway has a slightly different outlook than those who live their lives inside it. I was delighted to talk with people who think they're determining the mood of the country."

Whether or not the Man from Libby has his eyes on any particular prize, the sponsors of his Israeli adventures are pretty clear about why they invited him to join Bush, by most reckonings the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, on the tour.

"We have a long history of taking leading Republicans to Israel to help them understand the unique complexities and difficulties faced in the region," says Matt Brooks, the executive director of the National Jewish Coalition. "Racicot was included because he's one of the brightest lights among the Republican governors right now."

Despite the current crisis over stalled peace deals and the push for Palestinian statehood, Brooks adds that, as the holidays approach, the Holy Land is a "magical place."

Racicot, for his part, emphasizes the personal as well as the political in discussing the trip. "There aren't too many people who would pass up a chance to visit Israel at this time of year," he says. "I certainly appreciated the opportunity to understand more plainly and intuitively what's faced by people there. We were all impressed by the gravity and complexity of the situation."

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