By Chris Parker
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"Tim Pawlenty has got to find a way to appeal in a unique way that's not already being filled by the other candidates. What's that niche?" says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
Everybody's got a gimmick. Mitt Romney is the successful entrepreneur who fixed the Olympics. Mike Huckabee is the funny pastor who lost all that weight. Sarah Palin is the folksy populist who said thanks but no thanks. "People like Romney, Huckabee, Sarah Palin, they already have market penetration. For them, it's kind of like updating," Jacobs says.
But who is Tim Pawlenty?
"The Sam's Club thing—that's his gig," says Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, a political news service.
Sam's Club Republicanism isn't just a smart idea—it's Pawlenty's life. "He can say he comes from a working-class background. Those early years and experiences have shaped him—and it shows through," says Mitch Perlstein, founder and president of Center of the American Experiment.
The GOP knows it will need to broaden the appeal of its message to win in 2012. "And for a party that really is interested in branching out beyond what was a very narrow base in 2008, theoretically he can help break into those Sam's Club people," says Walter.
ON JUNE 3, THE DAY AFTER HE announced he would not seek a third term as governor, Pawlenty appeared on CNN with Andrea Mitchell. The television anchor read him the results of a CNN poll on who should be the next GOP nominee. Twenty-two percent had picked Huckabee; 21 percent went each to Palin and Romney; 13 percent to Newt Gingrich; and 6 percent to Jeb Bush. Pawlenty's name hadn't been included in the poll, Mitchell added, almost apologetically.
The camera flashed to Pawlenty, smiling affably. "Nobody knows who I am, Andrea, so even if I'm included I'm not sure it would make a difference," Pawlenty joked.
In that flash of self-deprecation, Pawlenty was acknowledging a weak spot—outside of political circles, he's got the face recognition of a D-lister. But he's clearly working to fix that. The Mitchell interview was his second national television appearance that day, and since his big announcement, Pawlenty has appeared on national broadcasts at least four more times. If he keeps it up, his mug will become as familiar as Brian Williams's.
The masses present one challenge, but it's far more critical that Pawlenty build connections among party activists and influencers. Right now, outside of Minnesota, Pawlenty's network is very small.
Pawlenty will have to make the rounds on the rubber-chicken circuit, turning his social calendar into a whistle-stop tour.
"He'll certainly want to do speaking events in Iowa and New Hampshire, Lincoln Day Dinners, fundraisers for candidates running for Legislature in 2010," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report. "Go to a lot of grassroots and party events, fundraising events, build chips up with office holders and future office holders, make contacts with potential contributors—selling them both on your message and on you."
Pawlenty got a head start last year with the Republican National Convention and stumping for McCain. But now he'll be traveling on his own behalf.
"If you look closely, you'll see he's already doing it," Jacobs says.
Consider: Three days after his gubernatorial announcement, Pawlenty was the keynote speaker at the national College Republicans convention in Washington, D.C. Earlier in the evening, he hobnobbed at a happy-hour reception with GOP operatives, including former McCain aides, Hill staffers, and Republican consultants. The last weekend of June, Pawlenty was again speaking, this time at a fundraiser in Arkansas. He was in Aspen July 2, and Nashville on July 7.
IN JUNE 2002, LESS THAN TWO WEEKS before Minnesota Republicans were set to choose a nominee for governor, then-House majority leader Tim Pawlenty was slightly trailing in the straw polls.
His competitor, Orono entrepreneur and statehouse outsider Brian Sullivan, was stinking rich, and had contributed $1 million to his own campaign the year before. Sullivan said he'd reject public campaign subsidies, freeing him to spend more than the $2.4 million limit. What's more, Sullivan was touting his personal wealth as an advantage in his pitch to party delegates.
Pawlenty's people decided to make an issue of money. The campaign said Sullivan would spend close to $2 million to try to buy the party's backing. Sullivan's camp didn't respond, other than to note that 5,000 Minnesotans had donated money. Yet Pawlenty continued to attack Sullivan for trying to purchase political office.
"Unlike some other states, Minnesota has not been taken by this 'rich person buys the election' phenomenon that you're seeing around in other states, so that's good and I don't think it will happen this year either," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty was right. He won the nomination, and then the governorship—twice. He did it all for a bargain price: $2.3 million in 2002, and $4.4 million in 2006.