Lt. Gov. Brad Little is careful to throttle his ambition to succeed Gov. Butch Otter, respecting Otter's insistence he's running in 2014.
But that doesn't mean Little's not ready should Otter reconsider.
"I am not going to look like I'm setting up a deal to convince the governor not to run, because I think he's staying," Little said this week. "But if I'm coming to a fork in the road and the sign says, 'Do nothing,' or 'Do something,' I'm probably taking the fork on the prepared side."
Little, 58, took a big turn toward getting ready late last summer, when he became the first Idaho lieutenant governor to publish a weekly schedule, similar to the governor's.
Though Little is paid $35,100 for a part-time job, he says he puts in more than 40 hours a week. His schedule often has more entries than Otter's and is heavy on economic development, a portfolio assigned by Otter.
Little emails his schedule to addressees drawn from Otter's list, supplemented with his own contacts. Recipients got advance word on: Little meeting officials from Austria, Japan and Spain; speeches to bankers, real estate agents, sportsmen and farmers; cheering on the Broncos and Vandals; LDS Temple tour; ride in a Veterans Day parade; and talk to a Parma High government class.
"I've always been out there," Little said. "Now more people know."
Last week, Little met with officials from the Basque Country to discuss details of a 2012 agreement to establish an Idaho trade office in Bilbao and a Basque trade office in Boise. Basque officials are raring to go - their officer is already in New York - but Idaho needs to raise money from private sources and has yet to begin a hiring process to fill the job in Spain.
Little led a 90-minute meeting, heavy on brainstorming. When he spoke, it was either to make a mild joke, offer historic or political perspective or bring the group back to focus with a to-do list. At the top of the list: delegating someone to run the show. "When everybody's in charge, nobody's in charge," he said.
When a Basque official mentioned the hope that new Secretary of State John Kerry will continue supporting the International Diaspora Engagement Alliance, which promotes diaspora-centered initiatives including entrepreneurialism, Little leaned over to his assistant, Jennifer O'Kief.
"Can you send a note to (Sen.) Jim Risch?" he whispered. "He's on the Foreign Relations Committee."
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who also was in the meeting, said afterward, "Brad Little has the executive skills and the political skills to be a great governor. His experience both in the private sector and the public sector are essential for a good chief executive."
Little works hard at his principal constitutional responsibility, presiding in the Senate. Said President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg: "For a person who only has to vote in the case of a tie, he is incredibly knowledgeable about the issues in the Legislature."
While Little is not well-known outside the Treasure Valley, Hill said, he has the network to change that. "If you want to talk about movers and shakers across this state, Brad knows 'em. You go anywhere with him, he knows all the businessmen, he knows when they started, he knows what challenges they're facing. It's just incredible."
A WELL-ROOTED FAMILY
Little's name is branded in Southwest Idaho, thanks to his grandfather, the "Sheep King of Idaho." Andy Little, a Scottish immigrant, once produced 1 million pounds of wool annually from more than 100,000 sheep. Brad Little's dad, David, represented Gem County for a dozen years in the Senate in the 1970s and '80s, and often brought his son along to the Statehouse.
Market forces pressed the Littles to replace sheep with cattle. Now, Brad and Teresa Little's son David oversees a ranch with 1,200 cow-calf pairs in Ada, Boise, Gem and Valley counties. The family also has sold land for residential development in the foothills north of Eagle.
Appointed to the Senate in 2001 by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Little was appointed to lieutenant governor by Otter in 2009. He was re-elected in his own right in 2010, with 68 percent of the vote, but has never faced a tough election.
Little is bookish, professorial, and capable of rhetorical meanderings that would make a tight-lipped Scotsman cringe. "All my friends tell me to stay out of the weeds," Little said. "So I'm working on that."
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, is a close friend who says Little's depth is a strength. "Brad cannot only see the details, he can see the big picture, not just statewide, but globally."
Said Hill: "He won't give you the sound bite, but he'll give you the solution."
A LABRADOR BID?
Recent speculation holds that if GOP Congressman Raul Labrador takes a pass on challenging Otter, he'll come home to run against Little for lieutenant governor. Labrador wouldn't comment, except to say he'll make up his mind on a governor's race soon.
The rumors say Labrador would run as the conservative alternative to Little, who has a relatively moderate voting record for today's Idaho GOP.
An ideological ally of Labrador, Sen. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, discounts such talk because Labrador, 45, needs a full-time job to support a young family. "You have to realistically be able to afford to serve as lieutenant governor," Bayer said.
Still, Bayer ribs Little about shoring up his conservative credentials. Little, for example, wrote an op-ed about President Obama's inaugural speech, blasting his "antiquated liberal vision for America" and calling the administration "today's greatest example of hostility and political games."
"I told Brad I was considering using it in some of my debate against the establishment of a state health exchange," Bayer said, referring to a controversial initiative led by Otter and backed by Little.
Little won't comment on the prospect of a Labrador candidacy, but is willing to talk about how he would run. He said he'd focus on his business and economic development chops.
"I fully understand the people are just so red-faced mad at the federal government and that Congressman Labrador addresses their frustration," Little said. "They're dying to have somebody who votes, 'Hell no!' a lot."
But running a state requires practical experience and expertise in education, corrections, health care and other services, he said. "You can be defiant, but you've got to grow the economy."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics