BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) – Pop by the Golden Blitz pub during happy hour, and you just might run into the president of Romania. He’ll be the one huddling with a confidant, hamming for the cameras, or dancing a friend around the room.

Traian Basescu – unbuttoned, unorthodox, some say unpresidential – is shaking up the political scene in this former communist country accustomed to colorless, aloof leaders.

On Jan. 1, the 55-year-old former sea captain will steer his nation into the European Union, an accomplishment he described in an interview with The Associated Press as “the destination port.”

Yet the achievement, which comes less than two decades after the ouster and execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, seems almost overshadowed by the buzz about the president’s colorful personality.

He’s a salty soul with a penchant for dressing casually, meeting with Cabinet ministers at local watering holes and driving his own car – a humble Skoda sedan – around the capital.

He’s a ladies’ man who’s always up for a dance wherever there’s a willing woman. And he’s also a man’s man who likes watching soccer on a wide-screen plasma TV, sipping single-malt whiskey and puffing on Benson & Hedges cigarettes.

“I like him. He mingles with people and goes where they go,” said Cornel Handra, 29, a chauffeur.

Although some of the reforms that helped Romania win EU membership were carried out before Basescu took office two years ago, he is credited with ushering in a new sense of openness and transparency.

Basescu, who controls the nation’s defense and security services and plays a key foreign policy role, has won respect for supporting the gradual opening up of files kept by the feared communist-era Securitate secret police. He also has been praised for urging a more vigorous crackdown on corruption and for encouraging press freedom.

A staunch U.S. ally, he blocked the prime minister’s proposal to withdraw Romania’s 608 troops from Iraq. “It’s a dishonor to leave your allies,” he said at a presidential retreat in the Carpathian Mountains.

Wearing brown trousers and an open-necked, camel-colored flannel shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Basescu smiled impishly when asked about frequenting taverns.

“It’s not like I’m discussing state secrets in a restaurant,” he said. “But it’s vital to me to maintain contact with the people.”

Unpresidential? “Let us go to vote, and we’ll see who is presidential.”

Romanians realized during the 2004 campaign they could be in for something unusual.

Basescu, then mayor of Bucharest, acknowledged he frequented brothels while a sailor during the communist era, which ended in 1989. His candor endeared him to voters who saw it as proof that the long-married, devoted father of two was no hypocrite.

When Basescu expressed support for gay rights and legalized prostitution – prompting his opponent, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, to question his religious beliefs – he charmed supporters by retorting that during storms at sea, “I had a direct link to God.”

Now, two years into his five-year term, his approval ratings are holding steady at around 60 percent and he remains the talk – if not always the toast – of the town.

His bald pate, gap-toothed grin, hearty “wha-ha-ha!” laugh and crinkly blue eyes, which occasionally cross, have made him a favorite target of cartoonists. If he’s not in the news, his daughters are: One is a fashion model, and the other is divorcing her pop star husband.

A year ago, after a breeze blew his combover into the air before a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Basescu silenced the nationwide jibing by snipping the offending strands and embracing his baldness.

Ioachim Pura, a 60-year-old ballet instructor, said Basescu knows that “in Romania, you have to draw people to you and to explain things to them. You show that you are like them, otherwise you won’t reach their hearts.”

But detractors say the off-the-cuff leader is all style and no substance.

Renate Weber, a former presidential legal adviser, concedes Basescu has such “extraordinary” political instincts that she once considered taking notes in case she ever decided to run for office.

Instead, she left his staff in frustration after a year.

“Watching Basescu is like watching a sitcom,” Weber said. “All these adventures harm the idea of the presidency. It’s not normal to read about how he goes to the pub and then drives his own car.”

Lawmaker Cosmin Gusa oversaw Basescu’s presidential campaign, but now plans to run against him if he seeks re-election. “It’s impossible for him to deliver prosperity, and that’s what Romania needs most of all. This is not a country you can run from a pub,” said Gusa.

Yet supporters say Basescu’s charisma is a refreshing change from his predecessor, Ion Iliescu, a grandfatherly figure with a stuffy way of speaking.

“He is grand when he needs to be, but he is also like the man on the street,” said Claudiu Stratulat, 37, a ship captain.

At the Golden Blitz, where the plates are engraved with “President” in blue script, the staff says Basescu – “a regular guy everyone likes” – always pays cash and tips well.

Basescu is evasive about his plans.

“Who knows?” he responded when asked whether he’ll seek another term.

“My years at sea helped me very much to overcome difficulties,” he said. “And I have the responsibility of a nation upon my shoulders.”

AP-ES-11-28-06 1351EST

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