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VANCOUVER/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gary Doer, Canada's choice as its next ambassador to the United States, is a pragmatist who is skilled at reaching out across partisan and international boundaries, according to friends and observers.
Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised political pundits on Friday by selecting Doer, a member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party who has served as premier of the Prairie province of Manitoba for the past decade.
The move means Canada's most conservative government in recent years will have a member of the country's largest social democratic party as its public face in dealings with a U.S. government that moved left with the last election.
Doer, who pulled his own surprise on Thursday by announcing his retirement as premier, had a good working relationship with Harper despite any political differences, said Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba political scientist.
"He's a very pragmatic person," Thomas said.
Doer, 61, entered politics from the labor movement, and served as leader of Manitoba's official opposition for nine years before the NDP finally won power in 1999. He has been re-elected twice as premier.
Known for his Cheshire Cat-like grin and sense of humor, Doer was the longest serving of Canada's provincial and territorial premiers, and observers say he has shown an ability to work with leaders from other political parties.
"If there was one bit of magic that has worked for Gary Doer politically, and I think will work for him diplomatically, it doesn't really matter what political stripe you are," said Paul Samyn, who covered Doer extensively for the Winnipeg Free Press.
"He's the kind of guy who's hard not to like," Samyn told CBC Television.
National NDP leader Jack Layton praised Doer on Friday as "adept at threading his way through thickets of competing interests, at bringing all sides together and making everyone feel like they contributed to the final decision."
As ambassador to Washington, Canada's highest profile diplomatic posting, Doer will at the center of any disputes between the neighboring countries, which are each other's largest trading partners with two-way trade worth more than $1.5 billion a day.
Unlike many left-leaning politicians in Canada, Doer admires the United States and has traveled there widely, said Les Campbell, a friend of Doer's for more than 20 years who now works in Washington for a think-tank.
"(Doer is) a Canadian who understands the U.S. I don't think that there are that many Canadians that do. I know every Canadian thinks they do. I've lived here a long, long time now -- my observation is that most Canadians think they do, but don't. Doer is actually one of the few," Campbell said.
Doer's ability to reach across partisan lines does not end at the border, and he has developed good working relationships with Democratic and Republican U.S. governors, including California's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Thomas said.
Manitoba and California are both members of a regional group developing a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Largely rural Manitoba has a population of just under 1.2 million people, but Thomas dismissed suggestions that Doer could have difficulty adjusting to the larger political stage of diplomatic life in Washington.
"He's always been on the big political stage," Thomas said.
But Campbell said Doer will have to make an adjustment, because, despite the prominence his new post might have in Canada, in Washington he will be entering a political scene where he will be a "a small fish in a big pond".
"He'll face the challenge that any Canadian ambassador faces, which is that no one cares about Canada," Campbell said.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa; editing by Rob Wilson