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Guard Debate Fuels Talk of Presidential Bid

Schweitzer also was turned down when he requested permission to visit Montana National Guard troops serving in Iraq. He said he hoped to see conditions on the ground so he could begin to address the guard’s recruitment and retention problems.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) submitted a new request on Schweitzer’s behalf to the White House Military Office last month, and the letter was referred to the Pentagon last week. As of press time, Schweitzer was still waiting to hear whether he would receive permission to accompany the adjutant general of Montana’s National Guard when he goes to Iraq and Afghanistan July 17-30.

Schweitzer recently told Salon that he would “personally” put Osama Bin Laden’s “head on a stick.” But the governor maintains just as firmly that he would not have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq on the basis of what was known in 2002 — a position that separates him from Clinton and some other potential White House candidates.

“The numbers didn’t add up for me,” he said.

For seven years in the 1980s, Schweitzer, who is Catholic, lived side-by-side with Muslims in Saudi Arabia while developing more than 28,000 acres of irrigated cropland.

“Time in Middle-Eastern Islamic culture is different. They view the crusades like they were yesterday,” Schweitzer said. “When any political leader in America uses the term crusade, you can hardly imagine the kind of angst that you get in the Islamic world. That would be like waving a Confederate flag at an NAACP meeting in Alabama.”

Schweitzer said he doesn’t know what the president’s “end game” in Iraq is.

“We now have the greatest part of our military force sitting smack-dab in the Middle East,” he said. “It is true that Iraq is full of al Qaeda and lots of bad guys — we’ve attracted them like honey to come and fight us.”

“He’s against orthodoxy,” said Karl Struble, the media consultant who handled Schweitzer’s unsuccessful 2000 run for Senate and his winning 2004 race for governor. “In my latest conversations with him, he’s been asking, ‘Why aren’t we producing more energy here in America so that we are not beholden to a bunch of oil sheiks?’”

In particular, the governor, who holds a master’s degree in soil science, wants to convert the millions of tons of coal reserves the state owns into oil and other petroleum products. The coal-conversion technology, first developed in 1923, becomes profitable when the cost of oil exceeds $35 per barrel. He also signed a bill designed to boost ethanol production in the state.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane doesn’t think anyone can be elected president in 2008 who is not seen as strong on national security. But the former spokesman to then-Vice President Al Gore does not think Schweitzer is at risk of looking weak.

“The way he communicates, the way he looks, the way he talks — he obviously is a hunter,” Lehane said. “His whole character and personality profile make it clear that he is no softie.”

Schweitzer also has taken issue with the Bush administration’s domestic priorities.

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