HELENA — What's next for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has become a favorite guessing game in Capitol hallways and political circles as the popular Democrat nears the end of his final term, fresh off a legislative session where he took the lead battling the tea party wave.
Would Schweitzer actually challenge one of the state's two Democratic senators? Could he take a cabinet post? Is he thinking about a future run for president?
Schweitzer likes feeding some of the speculation, but he isn't tipping his hand.
He could put his Arabic and deal-making skills and history of working in the Middle East to use for government or the private sector, Schweitzer said. Or how about a run for governor again in eight years, when the state's term limit law would let him take the office once more?
"I was thinking about that," Schweitzer said. "The constitution doesn't say I can't. But I wouldn't hold your breath. I think eight years of this job is enough."
One thing is certain: Schweitzer has proven he can sustain big approval ratings in a state that usually favors the GOP, and this during a time his party's brand has been getting clobbered around the country.
The brash governor remained on the attack even after Republicans promising to deliver a tea party-fueled agenda swept into the legislature with huge margins.
The governor has rejected in some way more than 100 GOP bills — with his trademark showmanship. Last month he torched a pile of Republican bills, which he called "ornery critters," with his "VETO" branding iron. One that attempted to place state eminent domain authority over federal land Schweitzer dismissed as "kooky" and "bat-crap crazy."
Observers suspect the high-profile fights have only brandished his image.
"It would largely reinforce what people either like or dislike about him," said political scientist Davis Parker of Montana State University. "Republicans are never going to love him. But the key is independents, and independents seem to really like that guy. His attitude and doing things like bringing out the branding iron sort of gives him street cred with Montanans."
It is obvious Schweitzer enjoys being governor, and usually knows at least as much about legislation as leading lawmakers.
He traded jabs all session with the huge GOP majority. Then he spent many long days with Republican leaders hashing out a detailed compromise covering a budget and spending package — only to start taking his veto power to pieces of it. Both sides accused the other of first breaking the deal, but legislators who had already adjourned and aren't scheduled to come back to town until 2013 are virtually powerless.
The governor's politics aren't always easy to grasp.
He often frustrates environmentalists with his strong support of coal, yet proved to be their ally by turning back pro-industry legislative efforts. He made headlines and endeared himself to many Montanans by proclaiming he would tell state agents to ignore some killing of wolves — only to mock conservative Republican lawmakers for attempting to nullify the federal Endangered Species Act.
The governor also ruffles feathers among many in his party by continuing to criticize national health care reform — but not because it is too liberal. Schweitzer is unhappy that Congress never offered a low-cost public health insurance option such as Medicare for all.
The governor also is known for sparring publicly with senior U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat largely atop the state party apparatus until Schweitzer came off the farm to take the governor's office.
Now, coming out of his last regular legislative session, no one believes a Democrat who keeps up the highest job-approval ratings in the state will walk away from the limelight next year. But Schweitzer says he could.
He takes a dim view of running for the state's sole congressional seat, being vacated by incumbent Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is taking on U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Rumors of a post in the Obama administration have come and gone.
That Rehberg-Tester race is expected to be one of the top Senate races in the country. Parker, the political scientist, said Schweitzer will use the bully pulpit of the governor's seat to stay involved.
"I suspect if Schweitzer wants a future in politics, he is going to keep stirring the pot," Parker said.
Parker, like some others, is not convinced Baucus — facing some of the lowest approval ratings of his long career after a high-profile involvement in health care reform — will run again in 2014.
"If he doesn't, I can't see Schweitzer not running for that seat. It just seems a natural fit," Parker said.
From Schweitzer's arrival on the political scene in Montana he has driven Republicans beyond frustration.
Former Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican who left office after one-term only see Schweitzer take it in 2004, said she is tired of seeing Schweitzer get away with stunts like only wears jeans, even when in official duties, bringing his dog Jag everywhere and using the state plane to constantly visit towns around the state.
Martz also said the governor's recent moves to veto aspects of a budget deal gone bad should reflect more poorly on Schweitzer than it has.
"I don't even want my name in the same sentence with this guy," said Martz. "The guy is so untruthful."
House Speaker Mike Milburn, who though he had a budget deal with the governor, said the "pompous display" is too much.
"The feedback I received from people on the streets, in church, and elsewhere, from Democrats and Republicans, is that the governor's theater and chasing the spotlight has lost its luster," Milburn said.
Schweitzer brushes off the Republican critics.
"As it turns out most everyone in Montana has a dog and most everyone in Montana wears jeans," Schweitzer said, looking ahead to the final stretch of his run where he hopes to attract more businesses to Montana. ""In spite of some of my detractors, I probably ain't going to wear a tuxedo while I am doing it and I suspect Jag will be helping me on the job."