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First Hurrah For a Senator

This Down East Democrat made a quick climb from freshman to majority leader. PROFILE: SEN. GEORGE MITCHELL

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WHEN Democratic Sen. George Mitchell drove the pine-studded back roads of northern Maine in 1982 campaigning for reelection, he knocked on some ornery doors. Behind one door he found a farmer who had just seen a picture in the local paper of Senator Mitchell standing between two prize Maine cows being shipped to the Soviet Union for display. When Mitchell began unfurling his stump speech, the Republican farmer said, ``Well, Senator, I think we should keep the cows here and send you to Russia.'' Mitchell relishes that story and likes to tell it in his travels, says his longtime friend Shepard Lee, who adds, ``George is good at self-deprecating humor.'' But the joke was not on him. Mitchell didn't get sent to Pinsk but straight up the express elevator of United States politics.

Mitchell may be the down Maine Horatio Alger of American politics. This low-key Portland lawyer, former Maine attorney general, and district judge went from freshman senator to Senate majority leader in just eight years. His rapid rise to majority leader has been compared to Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson's. But Mitchell is the antithesis of Johnson's kind of political juggernaut. He is a restrained, almost shy man, with a bird-dog determination to fetch the prize that startles his friends and stuns his political opponents.

How did he become majority leader so fast? Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, the Republican whip, has a tongue sharp as a silver spur for misguided Democrats. But he says of Mitchell: ``He did it by being himself, doing his homework.... He's very bright, very articulate, and he works. I admire that.'' Senator Simpson says Mitchell knows how to reach a compromise on issues ``without compromising himself. Those are things you look for in choosing a leader.''

Mitchell's sudden success - his first hurrah - may be a political mystery, but the early clues are there in his Waterville, Maine, childhood. George John Mitchell enjoys talking about that as he basks in the high, bright afternoon sun of the Senate majority leader's office, with its eagle's view of Washington.

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