HELENA, Mont. - Last December, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson invited some of his party's governors to meet with congressional leaders for yet another post-mortem on what went wrong in the 1998 elections. Near the end of the meeting, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi called on Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, saying he hadn't heard much from him.
"I find I learn a lot more by listening than by talking," Racicot replied. "That's the way the world looks at Washington. I think we could do a lot more listening."
Racicot, whose job-approval ratings usually range from the high 70s to the low 80s, told how he likes to go out and listen to what Montanans think about issues, not just tell them what he believes.
With that, he urged the national Republican Party to embark on a series of "Listening to America" meetings to hear out the people from all parts of the country on key issues.
Lott and Nicholson quickly embraced the idea, and it became an integral part of the Republicans' comeback strategy for 2000.
The GOP since has had several listening sessions already, including one on education in Pennsylvania and one on Social Security and tax cuts in Michigan, involving congressional leaders and governors. The party plans 150 listening sessions before the 2000 election.
Admirers say this is vintage Racicot, hearing out everyone else in the room and then modestly offering a suggestion at the end that people wind up adopting.
"The success Republican governors have experienced has been as a result of them being thoughtful, being able to listen and focusing upon those issues that are important to the people they serve," he said recently. "I think that should happen nationally too."
Racicot, who scarcely left the state during his first term, has gone on the road frequently over the past two years to address Republican groups around the country. Last weekend, he was the keynote speaker at the Founders Day celebration held every two years by the Nebraska Republican Party.
He got the nod after House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Lott declined.
State GOP Chairwoman Sue Aleksich Akey said she first got Racicot on the agenda of a Republican National Committee meeting in Cleveland two years ago. A number of other invitations have sprung from that because "he's a great speaker," she said.
"One of the things that really struck these RNC people is their governors, senators and congressmen come in with an entourage and limos and they speak and they leave immediately," she said. "The contrast how Marc is accessible is just very appealing."
Racicot (pronounced roscoe), 50, is completing his second and last term as Montana governor after serving as attorney general for four years. He narrowly won his first race in 1992, but handily won re-election four years later, polling 79 percent of the vote.
The Montana Republican Party has seen a resurgence under his leadership, with the party controlling both legislative chambers the past six years, its strongest sustained showing in 50 years.
Some of Racicot's harshest criticism, however, has come from fiscal conservatives of his party dismayed by his reluctance to cut budgets and taxes more at a time when Montana ranks last in the country in per capita income.
While Racicot enjoys strong voter approval, he has drawn criticism in three areas in particular: his fast-growing corrections agency; his controversial Department of Environmental Quality, which conservationists charge is too cozy with industry; and the state's failed experiment with turning its programs for mentally ill, poor Montanans over to a private managed care company.
None of it has dented in Racicot's popularity, leading Democrats to complain privately that Racicot is even more Teflon-coated than Ronald Reagan.
Racicot is "somebody who has been successful, a good governor and an extraordinarily good communicator of Republican ideas and approaches," said Cliff May, communications director for the Republican National Committee.
"He may not be known in the average kitchen, but he's well known among the activists and elected officials of our party," May said. "I think he is certainly someone with a political future if he wants one."
Racicot has emerged as a close ally to the leading Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, whom he accompanied on a trip to Israel last November.
At the National Governors' Association meeting in Washington in February, the Montanan led an effort to ask other Republican governors which presidential candidate they were backing in 2000. Soon, he and two colleagues had rounded up more than half of the 31 Republican governors behind Bush.
Rumors fly in Montana about Racicot possibly joining Bush as a running mate, an idea former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., suggests to national reporters in Washington, but the state's scant three electoral votes may dim those chances.
Other rumors have Racicot as a potential member of a Bush Cabinet, possibly as interior secretary or U.S. attorney general. Of this speculation, Racicot said: "I don't expect that at all."
Racicot dismisses suggestions that he is campaigning for Bush to get a high-level job, saying: "It would be a shallow commitment if it was born out of that desire."
Instead, he said he is in Bush's corner because "I just think he would do a good job, and he would serve the people of his country well."