Pawlenty's Path to the Presidency

What Minnesota's governor needs to do to become No. 45

Early on the morning of June 2, Gov. Tim Pawlenty began calling his political allies. Speculation had been escalating—it was good form to let friends know his future plans before he announced them to the whole world.

At 10:22 a.m., the governor's press office sent out a mass email: Governor Pawlenty to hold press conference today regarding his future plans. Reporters sprang into action, making calls, blogging and Twittering, and by the time Pawlenty stepped behind the podium of the Governor's Reception Room at the state Capitol, every journalist in town knew what he would say.

Pawlenty opened with a sports joke: He'd signed an executive order requiring Twins catcher Joe Mauer to also act as quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. "These are tough times, Joe, and everybody's got to dig deep and do a little more," Pawlenty kidded.

There was a ripple of laughter.

Then, as the cameras snapped, the governor got down to business.

"I'm announcing that I will not seek a third term as the governor of Minnesota," Pawlenty intoned. He took six minutes to thank God, his family, and the great people of Minnesota for letting him serve. Then he opened the floor for questions.

"Are you going to run for president in 2012?" the first reporter called out.

Pawlenty laughed, a quick staccato. "You know, my focus is going to be on my next 19 months and finishing this term out strong," he said. "Beyond that, I don't know what my plans are. I don't have any plans beyond that. I don't know what the future holds for me."

So he wasn't ruling the possibility out?

"I'm not ruling anything in or out—I just don't have any plans. My focus is serving out my term," Pawlenty repeated.

President Obama's approval ratings were high. Did Pawlenty think he could beat that?

"In terms of the future, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't have future plans. I'm just going to focus on being governor, and we'll see what comes next."

The reporters asked him the same question seven times, in seven different ways.

"I'll just reiterate," Pawlenty finally said, in response to the final inquiry. "I. Don't. Know. What. My. Future. Plans. Are."

Pawlenty isn't just being coy. His political allies say Pawlenty has said he'd like to be president, but the governor is no fool. No one who runs for the nation's highest office undertakes it without measuring the odds—and Pawlenty is at a significant disadvantage compared to some of the other presumed candidates. He has less money and lower national stature than most of those expected to run.

But four years ago, most Americans had never heard of a senator from Chicago named Barack Obama. And recent events, including the sudden implosion of potential rivals Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin, seem to have cleared Pawlenty's path to the presidency.

If Pawlenty wants to seize the Republican nomination, experts say there are several steps he'll need to take—and fast. Consider this his to-do list.

   

Keep Shopping Sam's Club

image IT WAS MID-AFTERNOON IN MARCH 2007, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., and the activists were getting tired. They'd sat through three full days of policy blather, and they were feeling listless. Before a modest crowd of these lulling folks, Pawlenty stepped behind the podium.

"I support school choice," the governor said to weak applause.

"But that ain't enough," Pawlenty added.

The audience perked up.

Pawlenty dove into an energetic rant about where the Republican Party needed to go: prescription drugs from Mexico and Canada, increased subsidies for alternative energy, more health care coverage.

To Matthew Continetti, an associate editor at the conservative publication The Weekly Standard, Pawlenty's laundry list sounded a little, well, Democratic—especially at a gathering he considered far-right.

But the crowd loved it. As Pawlenty neared the end of his speech and said the U.S. was "funding both sides of the war on terror," the conservatives in the room were ready to spring to their feet. "We're funding our side, and we're funding their side by buying oil," Pawlenty said to a standing ovation.

Pawlenty later told the Standard that he doesn't enjoy delivering a boilerplate conservative message. "So I tried to—and I enjoy trying to—at least appropriately and gently and constructively try to get people to think a little bit," the governor explained.

In his humble, Minnesotan way, Pawlenty was saying that he's an ideas guy. And the most important of ideas is "Sam's Club Republicanism"—the notion that the GOP should combine social conservatism with economic policies that appeal to working families. These, after all, are the voters the party is losing—those who didn't graduate from college, struggle to make ends meet, and want government to provide real services with their taxes without getting in their business.

Pawlenty introduced the slogan back in 2002, with his initial run for governor. "We need to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club," Pawlenty told a group of state Republicans. At the time, Pawlenty denied that the phrase was a dig aimed at Brian Sullivan, the millionaire entrepreneur he beat out for the party nomination. But it would have legs well beyond that race. Two conservative authors swiped it for the working title of a book. Today, Pawlenty's national talking points are peppered with the phrase. It may well be what sets Pawlenty apart from the rest as the field of potential GOP presidential candidates.

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