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FORTUITOUS ALIGNMENT OF PLANETS HAS AIDED RISING STAR

It was Nov. 22, 1994, and the sun had just risen above Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and soon-to-be Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich were walking together, and predictably the conversation turned to philosophical matters of government:

The proper balance of state and federal governments. The intent of the Founding Fathers. Balanced budgets. The role of prayer in creation of the U.S. Constitution.It was the dawn of a political era in which Republicans, flush from election victories just weeks earlier, pledged to embark on an era of less federal government and more decisions being made on the state and local levels.

The experience also validated the role of Leavitt as a national figure in the implementation of the Republican agenda. Not only were congressional leaders willing to listen to what Leavitt had to say, they sought his opinion.

In fact, Gingrich was so impressed by his encounter with Leavitt that he likened the first-term Utah governor to Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, who started a political revolution to protect local rights from an oppressive central government.

"It's psychologically similar to what happened here in Williamsburg in colonial times," Gingrich said at the time.

Leavitt's rising national political star is unmistakably linked to three factors: a Republican majority in a Congress that now shares Leavitt's political ideology that states should be given more flexibility to determine their own destinies, the broad-based popularity of Leavitt's Conference of the States proposal to restructure the balance of power between states and the federal government, and Leavitt's election as chairman of the Republican Governors Association at a time the GOP holds 30 of 50 governorships.

The rise to prominence has included fortuitous timing - when freshman Leavitt was tabbed to lead Republican governors, no one was expecting Republicans to soon control Congress - as well as surprising political savvy.

For example, Leavitt has won praise for his deft handling of the states' rights movement wherein he has allowed others to take center stage for his ideas. When Republican governors held a press conference in late November, Leavitt let governors from larger, more politically powerful states talk about a restoration of the balance of power between states and the federal government.

When Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Leavitt called a press conference on the same issue, Leavitt let Gingrich and Dole mug for the television cameras about what a great idea it would be to give more power to the states.

"I don't see what I am doing as particularly prominent," Leavitt told the Deseret News this week. "I see it as an opportunity to participate in historic events. I am a bit player in a bigger movement. These movements are made up of millions of people disconcerted with the way things are going."

Leavitt has not been a wallflower, mind you. He has been to Washington more in the past two years than any recent Utah governor. He has met repeatedly with congressional leaders, and his testimony was sought before several committees.

He also has met on occasion with President Clinton, himself a former governor who once shared many of Leavitt's frustrations with the federal government. Those meetings have been cordial but have not produced the cooperative atmosphere pervading Congress.

"States have been balancing their budgets. We've been reforming health care. We've been fixing welfare. We've been moving ahead on the important issues of America," Leavitt said.

In Washington, Leavitt was instrumental in organizing behind-the-scenes support for passage of a bill prohibiting the federal government from passing any law that requires states to take certain action without providing the funding to the states to comply with the law.

Leavitt, along with 29 other Republican governors, also led a not-so-subtle charge in support of a federal balanced-budget amendment, which ultimately failed by one vote in the Senate.

As the political power of the nation's governors swells, there is growing optimism that states will be given more authority. As Leavitt has repeatedly said, "Give us the ball and get out of the way."