George Bush's new man in Ottawa, installed in a ceremony with the governor general this week, is floating in on a cloud of harmonious rhetoric and a promise to listen.
But David Wilkins could end up being one of the more controversial U.S. ambassadors Canadians have seen in recent memory.
While the Bush administration struggles to keep a lid on the Iraq quagmire and a sickly economy teetering on the brink of its second crack-up in five years, experts say Wilkins's marching orders will be to keep trying to kick Canada into line on military issues while cajoling it to play a bigger role propping up beleaguered American economic interests around the globe.
As a trusted Bush crony and fundraiser for the Republican party, says Peter Zeihan of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, Wilkins's experience as a crafty wheeler-dealer will come in handy in wheedling and muscling Canada into helping the U.S. negotiate its way out of a mounting international mess.
Wilkins comes to Ottawa with a vital task, says Zeihan: helping the U.S. reorient its foreign policy away from Iraq and terrorism to other conundrums - the trade deficit with China, Europe's economic rivalry, influence over the former Soviet republics, free trade talks with Latin America. "There is no country more important to bring on board for this than Canada," Zeihan says. "Let's be frank: Canadians are basically Americans everybody likes."
And if Wilkins's record as a backroom Republican operative in the U.S. South is any guide, he may be less abrasive than former U.S. ambassador Paul Cellucci - but also more sinister. "Wilkins is likely to be less strident, but if anything, the message is going to be meaner, a meaner message delivered nicer," says Zeihan.
But Wilkins wasn't exactly hand-picked for his special talents, says Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at U of T. "This appointment is a political reward, and the specifics of what he'll do are afterthoughts. The guy admits he doesn't know Canada. He hasn't been a foreign policy wonk. Everything he says from here on will be scripted by the State Department."
The mission, however, Wiseman agrees is similar to Cellucci's. "The Pentagon monitors the military capacity of all their allies and their enemies. Because Canada and the U.S. are linked through NATO and NORAD, that monitoring will continue and there will be continued encouragement for Canada to pull its weight."
On top of this, as Reg Whitaker, a political scientist from the University of Victoria, points out, Wilkins backed U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber as speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives.
"It looks bad for Canada," Whitaker says. "The fact that this ambassador's only public stance on Canada was related to softwood lumber probably says it all. He represents a huge constituency for the Bush administration, the Southern Christian right. His appointment is somewhere between neglect and kicking Canada."
Since Bush announced Wilkins as his pick to go to Ottawa, media accounts have described the lawyer as a political moderate who shuns controversy and champions bipartisanship. But long-time observers in South Carolina, where Wilkins just wrapped up 25 years in the statehouse, including 11 years as speaker,tell a different story. They say Wilkins may come across as mild-mannered, with his mumbling, often inarticulate performances as a public speaker, but he's actually a cunning backroom fixer who played a troubling role in some of South Carolina's most divisive racial disputes.
Wilkins regularly advises Karl Rove, Bush's top political aide, and ran both of President Bush's election campaigns in South Carolina. In 1999, Wilkins found himself at the centre of a furor when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a boycott of South Carolina's $10 billion tourism industry to protest the flying of the Confederate battle flag atop the statehouse dome. An all-white legislature hoisted the Southern Cross flag in 1962, but unlike other Southern states, South Carolina refused to remove it.
Wilkins, as speaker, had authority over the House grounds and he supported the contentious symbol of slavery until the NAACP boycott caused a national media sensation.
With the state reeling, Wilkins orchestrated a "compromise" in 2000 that saw the flag moved from the dome to the House's front lawn, beside a monument honouring fallen Confederate soldiers, where it is mounted on a 30-foot pole, lit 24 hours a day and surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
The move didn't convince the NAACP, which maintains its boycott today. Asks Lonnie Randolph, president of the NAACP's state chapter, "Where else is it appropriate to fly a symbol of oppression on state property? Would Wilkins fly it at his law office?"
According to Kevin Geddings, who was chief of staff for Democratic governor Jim Hodges during the flag flap, "Wilkins is very cognizant - as are a lot of South Carolina Republicans - of how you can use race to your advantage."
The U.S. embassy in Ottawa says Wilkins is not granting media interviews at this time. The ambassador's supporters say he is tolerant and well-liked by people on all sides of the spectrum. "He is equally admired and trusted by evangelical Republicans on the right and the African American caucus," says Fred Carter, an advisor to three South Carolina Republican governors.
But Geddings says Wilkins was involved in another questionable compromise in 2000, when South Carolina moved to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. day as an official holiday - the last state to do so. Wilkins played a major role in forging a deal in which the state also adopted a Confederate memorial day holiday.
Wilkins also has strong views on other issues separating Canadians from Americans. He supported a bill to strengthen South Carolina's ban on same-sex marriage; he helped create harsher sentencing for pot possession; and he backed legislation restricting access to abortions.
And during his farewell speech to the House, Wilkins raised Canadian eyebrows when he said God had told him to go to Ottawa.