The gateway to the West for some big regional banks may not be a California savings and loan but a $33 billion-asset Oregon commercial bank: U.S. Bancorp.

"I think U.S. Bancorp is one of the two or three most attractive franchises in the country," said R. Jay Tejara, an analyst with Dain Bosworth Inc.

Other western acquisition targets that might appeal to big out-of-region banks are First Security Corp. and Zions Bancorp., both based in Salt Lake City, and Cleveland-based KeyCorp, which has a sizable presence in the Northwest.

But with 600 offices across Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, Portland-based U.S. Bancorp is one of the juiciest plums in the region.

Despite much speculation that a commercial bank would make an offer for Los Angeles-based Great Western Financial Corp., the country's third- largest thrift, none have stepped forward. Under hostile attack by the country's No. 1 thrift, H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Great Western has agreed to sell itself to Washington Mutual Inc.

Analysts and investment bankers said several banks may be interested in U.S. Bancorp, including First Bank System Inc. and Norwest Corp., both of Minneapolis; Banc One Corp. of Columbus, Ohio; and NationsBank Corp. of Charlotte, N.C.

However, there's an interesting dilemma, Mr. Tejara said. The buyer of U.S. Bancorp would probably have to come from outside the region to avoid antitrust issues, but cost-cutting opportunities would be limited because of the lack of branch overlap. The buyer would have to have a very strong stock price, Mr. Tejara added.

"Regional banks looking for a Western presence would prefer to use a commercial bank as an entry vehicle," said Joseph K. Morford, an analyst with Alex. Brown Inc.

Mr. Morford said he doesn't believe U.S. Bancorp is for sale, and he would be surprised by a takeover bid in the near future. At the same time, Mr. Morford noted that U.S. Bancorp chairman and chief executive Gerry B. Cameron is "realistic."

"He certainly knows he's going to be on radar screens of other banks, and his bank has to perform," Mr. Morford added.

Revenue growth has been a challenge for U.S. Bancorp, Mr. Morford said. This year will be telling, because if the company can't improve revenues, then it will be considered a takeover candidate, he said.

U.S. Bancorp president and chief operating officer Daniel R. Nelson's decision to retire early on Jan. 1 only fueled speculation about the bank's ability to survive. The 59-year-old Mr. Nelson had been scheduled to succeed Mr. Cameron as chairman and chief executive on Jan. 1, 1999.

Mr. Cameron still plans to retire at the end of 1998, but no successor has been named.

"When you have an open CEO seat, you have a certain flexibility to do transactions," Mr. Tejara said.

At an investors' conference in Los Angeles last month, Mr. Cameron said many people consider U.S. Bancorp a takeover candidate, but he would like to remain independent.

Indeed, Mr. Cameron is pursuing his own acquisition strategy, which will probably make his company that much more attractive.

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