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Partying president shakes up Romania's politics

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 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 president's colorful personality.

He typically dresses 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. And he's also a man's man who likes watching soccer on TV, sipping whiskey and puffing on cigarettes.

"I like him. He mingles with people," said Cornel Handra, 29, a chauffeur.

Basescu, who controls the nation's defense and security services and plays a key foreign policy role, has won respect for supporting the opening of files kept by the feared communist-era Securitate secret police.

Basescu smiles when asked about frequenting taverns. "It's not like I'm discussing state secrets in a restaurant," he said.

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. His candor endeared him to voters who saw it as proof that the long-married father of two was no hypocrite.

Ioachim Pura, a 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."