Tim Pawlenty: Jilted for Sarah Palin

The Minnesotan governor now knows how Carol McCain feels

Wearing a striped polo shirt and a forced smile, Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week handled the greatest humbling of his political life with all the grace he could muster.

"I'm really excited and pleased with [John McCain's] selection," Pawlenty said to the gathered reporters at the Minnesota State Fair. "Governor Palin is an outstanding, terrific pick for vice president."

But as he grinned wanly before the cameras, Pawlenty could have been forgiven if he felt just a little bitter. Like John McCain's first wife, Carol, who waited faithfully as her husband endured five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, Pawlenty stood by his man. And like Carol, his loyalty was not repaid; he was cast aside for a younger woman.

Pawlenty's long political romance with John McCain began two decades ago, when the Arizona senator came to the Twin Cities to stump for local Republican hopefuls. The operative assigned to drive McCain was a twentysomething city councilman from Eagan with hockey hair and a working-class upbringing. His name was Tim Pawlenty, and he was going places.

Details of their first meeting are scarce—neither camp returned calls for comment—but there's little doubt that Pawlenty impressed. McCain took a shine to the younger man and the pair kept in touch through the years, with McCain offering guidance and encouragement as Pawlenty rose through the Minnesota Legislature and later seized the governor's mansion.

In early 2007, when it came time for McCain to dust off his own ambitions and take another shot at the White House, most Republican leaders were playing the field, reluctant to commit when so many candidates were vying for the nomination. But Pawlenty hitched his wagon tightly to the Straight Talk Express. He was the first governor to endorse McCain, and became the first co-chair of his presidential exploratory committee. Before McCain was even officially in the race, Pawlenty declared him "a once-in-a-generation leader, one of the strongest, most courageous, and fearless public servants I have ever met."

By the dog days of last summer, however, McCain's campaign was headed over a cliff. Beset by a bloated staff, bickering aides, and weak polling numbers, an embarrassed McCain was forced to drastically cut expenses and retool his operation. The pundits left him for dead. But through it all, Tim Pawlenty stood by his man.

"Obviously his campaign has not gone as well as we'd hoped," Pawlenty told the AP last July, just after McCain's campaign manager and chief strategist abruptly left their positions. "But he's a fighter and he's going to stay in."

When McCain began his improbable comeback, Pawlenty's loyalty was rewarded with a rising profile—and more work. In the first 10 weeks of this year, Pawlenty stumped for McCain everywhere from Illinois to Michigan to Florida. It was enough for DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich to call the governor's absence during the legislative session "shocking."

But Pawlenty wasn't about to let provincial responsibilities drive a wedge between him and McCain—and that wasn't the only concession he would make to national ambition. In May, the governor flip-flopped on Cuba, vetoing a toothless bill calling on Congress to thaw ties with the island nation, which brought him in line with McCain's stance. In June, Pawlenty cut his mullet—an act that years of DFL teasing had failed to bring about—making him quite literally ready for his close-up. And in July, he perfected his role as McCain's most vicious knife-fighter, showing he was unafraid to take it to Barack Obama by declaring that The Audacity of Hope should be renamed The Audacity of Hypocrisy.

Last week, with the Democrats gathered in Denver, Pawlenty was deployed into enemy territory, holding press conferences from a makeshift command post bedecked with signs bearing Obama's likeness alongside the slogan "Not Ready 08: A Mile High, an Inch Deep."

"Our question for Obama is, 'What have you done? And what have you run?'" Pawlenty sneered. "The answers are, 'Not much' and 'Nothing.'"

As he delivered these acid comments last Thursday, Pawlenty was most pundits' odds-on favorite to join McCain on the Republican ticket. By that afternoon, though, he'd learned the bitter truth: McCain had selected a spunky 44-year-old woman whom he'd met once, fleetingly, at a governors' convention in February. A woman who, while Pawlenty was hailing McCain as the greatest patriot he'd ever known, said that she was hoping for a new Republican to enter the race.

When John McCain left his first wife in 1980 to marry the wealthy and glamorous Cindy Hensley, he used his newfound riches to provide his discarded bride a life of relative comfort. Carol McCain, who has not remarried, continues to cheer on her former husband from afar.

As Pawlenty comes to terms with the narrowed horizons that John McCain has imposed on his political ambitions, it's a safe bet he'll follow Carol's example. Perhaps there's a cabinet position for him. More likely, though, he'll live out his political career in relative comfort, in the purgatory of half-realized ambition. 

 
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