Stephen Guy Hardin / May 25, 2011

Picking Up on Pawlenty

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has made it official. He is now an official candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2012. Whew, that’s a load off my mind. The suspense was driving me crazy.

Tim Pawlenty may not have the big money donors of Romney or the Tea Party zeal of Bachmann or the rock star persona of Palin, but don’t dismiss his candidacy out of hand by thinking he doesn’t have a shot at the brass ring. Behind that low key demeanor is a seasoned politician who has an impressive background of winning and governing.

Twice elected governor of Minnesota, one of the oddest political arenas in the union, with a very strong Democrat Party machine in place, Al Franken is their senator after all; Pawlenty put together an effective combination of mixing mostly conservative positions on economic and social issues while working with Democrat majorities in the legislature to close deficits without across the board tax hikes. But unlike Palin, he served out his first term as governor and unlike Romney he got re-elected and served out his second term.

Perhaps one of Pawlenty’s biggest strengths is that he is a Midwesterner with strong blue-collar roots which can be marketed in striking contrast to the aristocratic upbringing of Mitt Romney, who is the GOP frontrunner and currently Pawlenty’s biggest obstacle to the nomination.

Along with his Middle America background Pawlenty has developed a strong base within the evangelical Christian political activist community due in large part to his own stated religious beliefs as well as the shifting GOP political scenery.

The political and financial commitment of the numerous evangelical Christian groups within the GOP fold had been the sole intellectual property of Mike Huckabee. But when faced with the prospect of losing his time slot on Fox forced Huckabee to choose between a new mansion in Florida or eating at truck stops in New Hampshire the choice for the former Arkansas governor and diet spokesman was clear. Pawlenty had worked hard to carefully position himself to reap the rewards of a Huckabee withdrawal so subsequently he became the biggest benefactor of Huckabee’s new found love for beachfront property.

But I digress.

While these assets should bode well for a Pawlenty run in the conservative dominated Republican primaries the reality of the media’s contempt for his fly over country appeal could backfire on him. Outside of his home region the governors name recognition has been consistently low while the scene stealers of the GOP have been out front grabbing all of the big headlines.

As he hovers near the bottom of most national polls Pawlenty has fallen far behind the Romney money machine, which is critical to the long term marketability of any primary run. This lack of media pyrotechnics can severely affect the fundraising capabilities of the campaign and cripple it before it can gain any momentum going into the fall.

Another potential issue for Pawlenty as the primary season heats up is the very real danger of falling prey to the GOP version of the ‘Al Gore Effect.’ During his 2000 presidential run Gore gained a national reputation for putting babies and the elderly to sleep with his tedious dictum as he recounted his numerous mythical accomplishments and fantastical delusions all with the alacrity of a tree stump.

As with Gore, Pawlenty knows how to work a small crowd, but when he assumes the position in front of a bank of cameras he takes on the personality of the nerdy kid in a John Hughes movie who couldn’t ramp up the courage to ask Molly Ringwald to the prom. Though, unlike Gore, who often affected a flatulent, buffoonish self infatuation, Governor Pawlenty appears to morph into a WASPish version of the ‘70’s era Woody Allen, only without the glasses, red hair and an affinity for underage Asian girls.

While this image works great in the local Rotary Club it is not the image that can be successfully packaged and marketed to the American people as the strong leader we need for these dark and fearsome times.

But appearances aside, Pawlenty has shown himself to be a tough, resourceful politician and as Romney increasingly struggles with the label of being an Obama-lite Republican from the Northeast, there could be an opening for a man representing the values of the great heartland of America. Unlike Romney, Pawlenty has an established record of being a strong conservative on the social and fiscal issues that have become the litmus test for the GOP faithful.

Litmus test, indeed.

In his announcement speech, Pawlenty put himself out on the firing line as a man willing to tell it like it is and do the heavy lifting requited to set the country back on the right track. Part of his strategy is to present a clear choice of opposites between himself and President Obama, as well as differentiate himself from Romney who is increasingly playing defense over the failure of Romney-care in Massachusetts.

Walking the walk Pawlenty-style is putting Wall Street on notice that he opposes corporate bailouts and will keep them on a short lease, telling senior citizens the hard truths about the future of social security and Medicare, and letting voters in the pivotal early state of Iowa know that he is against ethanol subsidies. Gutsy talk for a lackluster guy from Saint Paul, but politics has a long and storied history of pulling surprises on the electorate. Can anyone say Barack Obama?

So, I’m not sure that we should count the former governor out yet. If he gets a good turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire, a much needed boost from the conservative base and some mistakes by the frontrunners we could start seeing a new frontrunner emerge as the media and the electorate start picking up on Pawlenty.

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