KEEPING A LOW PROFILE IN A HIGH PROFILE YEAR

January 19, 2011

As others kept their distance, Tim Pawlenty took a knee.

It was late, and most undergraduates had long since left the auditorium at George Washington University, but a lone young man in a wheelchair remained. He waited patiently near the door, his shoulders twitching. Flocks of coeds fluttered by. Minutes passed. Then, as Pawlenty finished his last handshake with a clean-cut College Republican, he noticed the fellow at the exit and approached him.

The student struggled to ask a question. Pawlenty, an athletic 50 year-old, dropped to his side. Behind him were empty pizza boxes and trash cans; his aides were watching the clock. But the former Minnesota governor’s eyes stayed fixed upon the face of the young man, who haltingly asked him about the tragedy in Tucson.

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the people who had loved ones who were lost or injured,” Pawlenty replied softly. “We are still heartbroken over that.” Their conversation continued for a couple of minutes, touching on the personal and the political. Pawlenty remained perched on the carpet, his tie and jacket rumpled.

For Pawlenty, it was a quiet moment. Out of office after serving two terms in Saint Paul, he has been making the rounds this month, talking up Courage to Stand, his new memoir, and winking at a potential 2012 presidential bid.

Pawlenty’s promotional tour, of course, has coincided with days of half-staff flags — a publicist’s nightmare. Copies of the tome aren’t exactly flying off the shelves. Yet the timing has strangely been a boon for Pawlenty. His low-key Midwestern persona — often scorned by Beltway politicos as flat and tepid — has garnered attention, even accolades, for being just that.

The day before his Foggy Bottom stop, Pawlenty appeared on Comedy Central’s Daily Show, where he calmly sparred with comedian Jon Stewart for 20 minutes. At the top of the program, Stewart challenged Pawlenty about GOP rhetoric, asking whether leading Republicans “believe we are as close to tyranny and socialism as the tone of their rhetoric would signal.”

Pawlenty did not take the bait. Rather than paint himself as a Tea Party spokesman, or as a chin-pulling critic of the movement, he noted that behind such heavy words lay real political differences, not just ammunition for partisan battle. He pushed back on Stewart’s premise, turning the interview away from a discourse on discourse toward a back-and-forth on policy.

“I think there are a lot of us in the conservative movement who view government — whether it is personalized to Barack Obama or anyone else — as government that crowds into more space that used to be for individuals, that used to be for private markets, that used to be for charity, that used to be for entrepreneurial activity, that used to be for faith organizations,” Pawlenty said. “There are a lot of us who say, ‘you know, that feels like government stepping on us, pushing us to the side.’ There is a continuum between liberty and tyranny, and sometimes it happens very incrementally.”

For the next few minutes, Stewart kept digging for newsy red meat, but Pawlenty never dished it. By mid-interview, the comic recognized that across from him sat a debate partner, a Republican willing to wrangle on tax rates, the size of government, and the federal deficit — not a polarizing bomb-thrower. So he kept Pawlenty on-set for an extended confab, far beyond what he could air.

As the chat closed, Stewart leaned across the table. “You know what’s crazy? I don’t think you and I disagree that much.#…#Do we?” he asked. To which Pawlenty deadpanned, “Yeah.” Both chuckled.

At GW, Pawlenty recounted the exchange. “We had a great discussion. It uncharacteristically went serious — away from the normal comedy routine,” he recalled, as students munched on greasy slices. “I respect [Stewart], he’s smart — he does his homework.”

The audience, mostly collegiate conservatives, nodded and perked up. They may not have known much about Pawlenty, but this early impression was, if anything, different: soft-spoken, earnest, and extemporaneous — the opposite of a glad-handing salesman.

By approaching political action with strong principles and an open hand, Pawlenty predicted that the GOP could make major gains in coming years. “Our party needs to understand that we need to connect with people who have not yet joined our team,” he said. “That does not mean that we run around and pretend we are Democrats or liberals.” Instead, he said, the GOP’s future success rests in making a “hopeful and optimistic” case, with a “can-do and constructive spirit.”

With progressives still roosting in Washington, holding onto the Senate and White House, Republicans, Pawlenty argued, need to do more than criticize — they have to be strategic and civil. “I got a lot of experience doing that in Minnesota,” he mused. “It’s a pretty liberal place; it’s a place where Al Franken is a U.S. senator. I mean, think about that.” Still, creating villains out of political opponents, he cautioned, will keep Republican ranks thin.

Pawlenty turned to a theme that has propelled his political career — that the GOP should be the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club. “We don’t want to go to people who are hurting or in doubt, maybe challenged in ways that we don’t directly understand, to condemn and to judge and to scare them,” he said. “We’ve got to identify the problem, but we’ve also got to identify the solution — to say there is a way forward, there is a way out, there is a better way.”

Pawlenty’s recommendation got polite applause. Some, of course, resisted his neighborly charm. At the Q-and-A following the speech, one cheeky student flicked at the governor’s at-ease, Minnesota-nice politics.  “Some pundits don’t think that you could be president, and see you more as a vice president,” he said. “Would you be the vice-presidential nominee for the GOP?”

It was a direct citation of the central rap on Pawlenty — that he’s too milquetoast to lead a ticket. The College Republican organizer looked horrified. Yet the governor grinned and ate it up. “If I decided to run, it would be for president, not for vice president.” At that, the students gave him the biggest cheer of the night — one worthy of a contender.

Winning over skeptics will be the crucial challenge for Pawlenty as he eyes a presidential run. Unlike many of his potential rivals, Pawlenty has little baggage. Some could quibble with certain gubernatorial decisions — such as the time he raised cigarette fees to reach a budget deal — but his overall governing record is strong: He resolved a $4.5 billion deficit in his first term, instituted performance pay for public-school teachers, cut billions from public-employee pensions, and issued 299 vetoes. For his efforts, the libertarian Cato Institute gave him an “A” rating on its biennial fiscal report card.

In recent weeks, Pawlenty has brandished his reputation as a fiscal hawk and social conservative. On Sunday he called on Republicans to not raise the federal-debt ceiling, which now stands at $14.3 trillion. “You’ve got to draw some lines in the sand,” he said on Fox News Sunday. And on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the just-repealed military policy on homosexuality, Pawlenty said last week that he would fight to reinstate the policy should he become president.

Beyond his record, Pawlenty’s hardscrabble upbringing is what resonates most. Pawlenty grew up near the stockyards of South Saint Paul. Hockey, and all of its bruising glory, was his passion. His father worked in trucking. Then, at age 16, his mother was taken by cancer. Before she passed, she pushed him to be the first in the family to attend college.

After working his way through college and law school at the University of Minnesota, Pawlenty ran for the state legislature, where he soon rose to become majority leader. He was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in 2006, a tough year for Republicans, especially those in blue states. In 2008, John McCain put Pawlenty on his veep shortlist, giving him a brief flicker in the national spotlight.

But he has not managed to catch fire since. In the early states, Pawlenty has languished in the single digits: One Public Policy Polling survey shows him at 4 percent among Iowa Republicans; a Magellan poll has him at 4 percent in New Hampshire. Gallup also shows that he is hardly a known figure to most Republicans nationwide.

Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman and Pawlenty’s senior adviser, tells me that the early enthusiasm gap can be overcome. Pawlenty, he says, offers something different than the rest — Upper Midwestern values, eight years as a successful, conservative state executive, and a background that resonates with voters who are frustrated with Washington.

“I’ve known Tim Pawlenty since he was in college; I know his family — they’re blue-collar people,” Weber says. “What he is saying is that the Republican party had those voters when Ronald Reagan was president, and when George W. Bush was president, early on, only to lose them. Now we’ve got to get them back in 2012 and he’s the guy to do it. If Republicans can’t explain why conservative policies are right for average, working-class people, then we’ll be consigned to being a permanent minority.”

For now, as he trudges across the country peddling his book, Pawlenty is keeping his ambitions on low simmer. Retail politics at the local Barnes & Noble, not Iowa, is on the agenda. But as he showed at GW and elsewhere, he’s more than a Minnesota stiff — he has heart, know-how, and a fresh outlook on his party’s future. Voters, like that young man at the door, may not know much about the even-tempered guv, but they’re curious. In what is shaping up to be a raucous and bloody-fisted field, the mild have room to rise.


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