HELENA - Steve Bullock, seen by many Democrats as their best hope for keeping the governor's seat in 2012, said he hasn't decided yet what office he'll seek.
Will Bullock, 45, run for an open seat as governor, with term limits preventing Gov. Brian Schweitzer from running again? Two Democratic state senators, Larry Jent of Bozeman and Dave Wanzenried of Missoula, already are in the race, along with five Republicans.
"I'm mulling it over and doing it in what I believe is a real measured way to make sure if that's my decision that I make, it's something that will be right not just for my family but for the state," Bullock said last week.
James Lopach, a longtime University of Montana political science professor, said Bullock "has a lot of pluses going for him."
"On paper, his experience and credentials are the best on either side," Lopach said. "I think his background, what he's got as a formal biography, is really strong. He's very likeable. He comes across well."
Or will Bullock run for another term as attorney general, the state's top legal and law enforcement official, with an incumbent's advantage?
Bullock worked hard to become attorney general, losing a 2000 primary race to fellow Democrat Mike McGrath, who ultimately won the office.
In 2008, after winning a three-way Democratic primary, Bullock defeated Republican Tim Fox, 53 percent to 47 percent, in a hard-fought race for attorney general.
A number of Democrats have been urging Bullock to run for governor, but he's been publicly noncommittal so far.
"I don't think it's any secret that I've been encouraged quite a bit, and it's also not a secret that I've been seriously thinking about it," Bullock said. "But I want to do so in a real thoughtful and deliberative manner."
Bullock said it's far too early to discuss the 2012 political lineup. Most Montanans are focused instead on how they can't go camping this weekend because of the rain or wondering how they can afford to pay for day care when school ends soon, he said.
"It's a small group that is really wrapped around the axle about what's going to happen 18 months from now," he said. "We're just weeks out of this past legislative session. We're only months beyond the 2010 election."
Many factors will shape his decision, he said.
"First, I was hired to do a job - this job - and it's a job that I enjoy and it's a job where my focus is," Bullock said. "As a result, we've been able to do some great things."
He pointed to his successes steering two major initiatives through the recent Republican-controlled Legislature. One creates a state prescription drug registry to fight growing abuse. The other sets up a 24/7 sobriety program requiring people convicted of multiple DUIs to undergo daily breathalyzer tests, at their own expense, at local law enforcement offices.
Bullock also said he is proud of what his office has done fighting for consumer protection, setting up a mental health trust fund, working for competition in agriculture and trying to prevent corporations from spending money in political races.
Even contemplating running for governor isn't anything someone should do lightly, he said.
"As I consider it, I'm not more or less thinking what the tenor is going to be in 2012," he said. "I'm thinking if I got elected (governor), I'd have the potential to be in there until my oldest (child) is graduating high school, and she's in third grade now."
Bullock and his wife, Lisa, have three children, ages 9, 6 and 4. He said the family would have to be fully on board for him to run for governor.
"I think at times some of that can sound trite, but when you're missing your daughter's talent show, like I did (last) week because I had a commitment, that's real," he said.
He's also been visiting with Montanans from all walks of life to see what they see as the challenges and opportunities facing the state.
Asked about what kind of Montana he wants to see in the future, Bullock said, "That's the discussion I'm going through now. And if I ultimately determine that I could significantly contribute to that, that's probably when I jump in."
Bullock already is fundraising for some 2012 race, but has left blank the line designating for which office, a move that drew a Republican complaint. Through March 31, Bullock's campaign fund had about $112,000 in the bank.
A state Republican official took a shot at Bullock's lengthy decision-making process.
"I think the reason Steve Bullock is taking so long to decide is that he knows how vulnerable he is," said Bowen Greenwood, state GOP executive director. "He supports ‘Obamacare' in a state that overwhelmingly wants to see it repealed. He opposes developing Otter Creek in a state that depends on natural resources."
Last year, Bullock rebuffed Republican calls to join some other state attorney generals suing over the 2010 federal health reform law. He said his legal analysis concluded the lawsuit didn't hold water legally and state tax dollars shouldn't be spent to file a lawsuit that is "much more about politics than it is about policy."
As a member of the state Land Board, Bullock voted against leasing the state-owned Otter Creek coal tracts in southeastern Montana, contending the bid was too low.
Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Missoulian State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920. His email address is email@example.com.