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.

"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.

   

Become a Household Name

imageON 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.

"He's got a lot of work to do just to introduce himself to national Republicans," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College.

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.

   

Pad Your Purse

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.

But paying for a governor's race is chump change compared to the high finance of a national presidential campaign. Pawlenty will have to become a skilled national fundraiser if he wants to play.

"Sadly, that's even more important than raising your name I.D.," says Annette Meeks, former deputy chief of staff to Newt Gingrich and CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

In 2008, Obama raised $745 million, John McCain $370 million, Huckabee a measly $16 million. "That's one reason Huckabee fell out of the race—he was really underfunded compared to McCain," Schier says.

Pawlenty will also need to impress an A-team of national strategists. Plenty of them are sniffing around for the next hot candidate, and Romney has already snapped up some of the most talented operatives.

"What's going to be critical for his success is having people in those early states of Iowa and New Hampshire who really know the political culture and the key players in those states, because they continue to be make-or-break for a candidate," says Chris Georgacas, the former chairman of the state Republican Party.

   

Be the Anti-Obama

imageON JUNE 16, LESS THAN TWO weeks after announcing he would not seek a third term, Pawlenty took the podium at the Governor's Reception Room again, with more big news for the state. He would single-handedly close a $2.7 billion budget gap through a process known as unallotment—rescinding money that has already been appropriated.

Before a single critic could squawk, the governor fired a preemptive strike: "They need to get their head out of the clouds and get into the real economy and economic circumstances that is the worst economic crisis since World War II."

Yet the counterarguments quickly piled up: Unallotment would mean job cuts and fewer government services. DFL legislators said Pawlenty was acting like an emperor. Cities threatened to sue. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak criticized Pawlenty's unspoken ambitions. "It's time for the governor to stop throwing bombs in and out of visits to primary states," Rybak said.

Unallotment may be unpopular with state DFLers, but it could play incredibly well on the national stage—especially if Obama's economic stimulus doesn't create job growth. The GOP is rediscovering its roots as a party of limited government and less spending, says Vin Weber, former U.S. congressman and omnipresent force in conservative politics. "Republicans are looking at trillions of dollars of new spending and sort of recoiling in horror," Weber says.

If he finishes his term without tanking the state economy, Pawlenty could have a solid "no new taxes" claim.

He's already taking Obama head-on. On June 28, Pawlenty knocked Obama's proposal for universal health coverage on national television.

"The president said not long ago in an interview, quote-unquote, 'We are out of money,'" Pawlenty told CNN's John King. "With all due respect Mr. President, if we're out of money, quit spending it."

   

Be the Anti-McCain

image AT ABOUT 7:30 A.M. ON THE LAST Friday of August 2008, John McCain called Pawlenty on the telephone. It was just a few days before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

McCain confirmed what the Minnesota governor had already surmised: Pawlenty had been passed over as McCain's running mate.

Publicly, at least, Pawlenty displayed no heartbreak. He repeatedly maintained that he was honored to even be considered. At his speech on the last night of the RNC, Pawlenty even plugged the ticket with his own signature catchphrase: "John McCain and Sarah Palin connect with Sam's Club voters. They get it."

What must have, on some level, been a disappointment to Pawlenty may turn out to be his greatest advantage in 2012. He's not tainted with failure. "He's a fresh face," Jacobs says.

Plus, while Palin was a darling of the Religious Right, Pawlenty is likely to draw a wider range of voters.

"If Republicans are serious about getting the White House back, they have to nominate somebody who could appeal to a broader electorate," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of The Year of Obama. "Pawlenty is one of the few Republicans who fits that mold."

Pawlenty's outsider status plays well with his message of new ideas in the Grand Old Party. "I think he needs to spend some time traveling around the country on an issues basis—not just his record on fiscals—energy and environment and health care and education," Weber says. "Republicans are going to want a candidate who can connect with people on that level."

Which will mean distinguishing himself from the man who brought him to the national dance. "Obviously, we're not going to beat President Obama with another John McCain," Meeks says.

   

Be the Last Man Standing

imageIT WAS THE OPENING WEEKEND OF fishing season last year—Friday, May 9, 2008—when Pawlenty decided to crack a joke about his wife.

"I have a wife who genuinely loves to fish. I mean, she will take the lead and ask me to go out fishing, and joyfully comes here," the governor told WCCO-AM radio host Mike Max. "She loves football, she'll go to hockey games, and, I jokingly say, 'Now, if I could only get her to have sex with me.'"

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."

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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