Pawlenty's Path to the Presidency

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

Amid the boisterous laughter in the background, Mary Pawlenty's voice could be heard: "No, sorry—my apologies for my husband."

Journalists had a field day with Pawlenty's off-color remark—everyone from the Star Tribune to the New York Times wrote about it. "A bit bawdy for the GOP VP frontrunner?" a blogger for the Atlantic Monthly wrote. "All I can say, Governor, is that the Naval Observatory can be an incredible aphrodisiac."

The comment was so unusual for the squeaky-clean governor that some speculated that it might not be a misstep, but a carefully calculated move. "Straight talk, Minnesota male-style," wrote a blogger on Politico. "Typically, this would hurt a candidate for veep. But given McCain's sense of humor, he'll probably find it hilarious and like Pawlenty that much more."

Kyle T. Webster

Other than that gaffe—or gambit—Pawlenty has steered clear of scandal. Meanwhile, several of his potential competitors have shot themselves in the foot.

Virtually every prominent contender has had a setback. Sanford wandered off the Appalachian Trail and into the dog house, Newt Gingrich's history of infidelity will make him a tough sell to evangelicals, and Huckabee can be characterized as a religious extremist. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman got tapped as U.S. ambassador to China by Obama. And Palin's bizarre decision to step down as governor may be her final hurrah.

"Palin comes not only with a cartload of a baggage—a steamer of baggage," says Sarah Janacek, who publishes the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "Bobby Jindal has not done well on national speaking opportunities—we all cringed."

Pawlenty's toughest competitor may be Romney, who has name recognition and connections, impressive executive experience, and vast personal wealth. His candidacy, however, will test whether Americans are ready to elect a Mormon.

Pawlenty, by contrast, is "another in a long list of white guys seeking the Republican nomination," Rothenberg says. "My impression is he's a personable, articulate, mainstream conservative who's talked a lot about taxes and keeping the line on taxes and preventing government from getting too big. Kind of a white-bread candidate."

For shell-shocked Republicans, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

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