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The exotic sights at the Mirage Hotel, where the nation's governors have been meeting this week, include an artificial rain forest off the lobby, a fake volcano by the front entrance and a brace of real white tigers, whose part in a nightclub magic act is too complicated to explain.

But when the governors tear themselves away from these and other diversions of this desert resort, they realize they have something almost as exotic sitting among them at their square conference table: a state executive who began his tenure 40 years ago.

He is Cecil Underwood of West Virginia, a Republican who was elected as the "boy governor" in 1956, the youngest in state history, and who made an implausible comeback last November. Underwood, a vigorous 74-year-old, provides a perspective much longer than his colleagues, most of them a full generation younger, can even imagine.

It is not quite a fluke that he finds himself back at the annual summer meeting of the governors for the first time since 1960. After losing a bid for the Senate, he ran for his old job in 1964, not exactly an easy year for Republicans in a state as Democratic as West Virginia, and lost again, when he tried for the Senate in 1976 against Democrat Jay Rockefeller.

He was by far the best-known Republican in the Mountain State when the party went hunting for a candidate last year; the only Republican to serve as governor after him had gone to jail.

And then he caught a break. With popular, term-limited, two-term Gov. Gaston Caperton stepping down, the Democrats nominated a former state legislator named Charlotte Pritt, who had aggravated many in the party by running against Caperton in the 1992 primary and as a write-in that November. Underwood won handily, with thousands of Democratic crossover votes.

The state he is now leading is not the same one he governed before. When he left office, budget revenues were $115 million; now they are $2.4 billion. The economy has been dramatically altered. In his earlier term, coal was king in West Virginia and youths figured they would follow their fathers into the mines. But during those four years, the technology revolution hit the industry full-force. Even though West Virginia mined more coal last year than it did in the 1950s, employment in the mines has fallen from 150,000 to 30,000.

The labor unrest that accompanied the onset of this wrenching change "gave us the reputation of having a strike-happy work force," Underwood said, "and major corporations put the state on their blacklist."

But that has changed, he said, crediting much of the transformation to a new generation of union leaders and politicians who recognized that the old battles were too costly. In his first State of the State address, Underwood praised Caperton's leadership. Just three weekends ago, he and Rockefeller (who served as governor before moving to the Senate) were co-hosts of a meeting of corporate CEOs, asking them what Charleston and Washington could do together to expand the state economy.

It is already in better shape than it has been for decades. The growth sectors range from furniture and flooring and polymers to a tourism boom fueled by the popularity of white-water rafting and mountain biking.

Last week, Underwood assembled the publishers of eight of the state's newspapers to propose putting their help-wanted ads on the Net -- as a help not just to job-seeking West Virginians but also to people who had left the state to find work but would love to come back.

Unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Underwood is ready to credit people in the other party for their contributions to this turn-around -- and even thank Washington for its help. "There are many more programs and regulations and mandates (from Washington) than there were in my first term," he told me. "But I also see them trying now to provide us with more flexibility. It is working well."

That willingness to take the long view makes Cecil Underwood at least as exotic as the white tigers.

Washington Post Writers Group

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