Four years after he and his partners sold their firm to Oracle for $1.8 billion, Upper Merion native Greg Gianforte is the leading Republican candidate to challenge Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock for Montana's top office.

Gianforte says he learned life tactics on the field at Upper Merion Area High School, where he was left offensive guard on the 11-0 Vikings team of 1979: "You win football games by first getting possession and then running 3- and 5-yard plays. Not by Hail Mary passes. Common sense, elbow grease, and keeping a positive attitude."

Two of his peers made the NFL. Gianforte used that playbook to run his companies, and now his campaign.

But why Montana? Credit junior-high science teacher Tim Frable, the World War II fighter-pilot veteran who drove an impressionable Gianforte and classmates there for spectacular summer hiking.

As soon as Gianforte had the money - after Stevens Tech and Bell Labs, after he built and sold his first company in New Jersey - he moved to Bozeman, where he built the cloud-computing pioneering firm RightNow Technology and raised his family.

Everyone in tech talks about living in the Rockies, Gianforte says: "Once the Internet removes geography as a constraint, the smartest people go to the most beautiful places."

Pretty, but hard-living: The state's frontier legacy is poorly paid farming, ranching, lumber, mining and smelting jobs, all in danger now from automation and falling commodity prices. Gianforte says his new mission is to make sure more people who grew up in Big Sky Country can afford to stay there. Oracle is Exhibit A: "They're putting up their global cloud-computing operations center here in Bozeman," he notes.

But high tech is not enough. So Gianforte also is an advocate of Montana's bituminous strip mines. He says coal is endangered by "Obama's EPA" and Bullock's reluctance to fast-track mine permits. Fires on "mismanaged" federal land send more carbon skyward than coal does, Gianforte insists.

What he's not running on, to the surprise of some, is the Bible. Raised Presbyterian, Gianforte and his wife's multimillion-dollar support of church schools, evangelization programs, a creationist dinosaur museum, and a family-advocacy group that opposes gay marriage, plus a pre-candidacy speech saying the Bible lacks any sanction of retirement, win him backing from fellow conservative Protestants but also provoke public objections from secular Montanans, including faculty protests when he addressed engineering graduates at the state university.

Now that he's a candidate, Gianforte turns aside questions linking faith and politics. He invokes the First Amendment: "You're allowed to believe what you believe."

He hasn't endorsed Trump, Cruz, or Kasich. "The presidential race has entertainment value. I've been watching with fascination," he says.

On a trip home last month, his brother, Doug, a Chester County construction manager, hosted a Gianforte for Governor event at Victory Brewing in Downingtown. "It's good to see old friends," said Gianforte. But just to visit: "Our roots are deep in Montana now."

215-854-5194@PhillyJoeD