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Tim Pawlenty Debut: The Un-Palin, Un-Romney Makes His White House Case for 2012

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Why was Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota wearing jeans this month at a meeting of formally attired governors in Boston? Fashion mystery solved: He was rushing off to a county Republican picnic 67 miles away in New Hampshire, the lead-off presidential primary state.

There's no mystery about Pawlenty's political intentions, which partly explains why he drew 39 journalists to his debut this week at a ritual Washington breakfast -- "one of the biggest turnouts in recent breakfast history," said host David Cook of the Christian Science Monitor. Another reason is that, unlike other 2012 prospects such as Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, he is a relative unknown.

This was no light breakfast. It amounted to an hourlong audition for commander in chief, with a side helping of fiscal responsibility and enough tough rhetoric to prove that "Minnesota nice" is a relative concept in politics.

To refresh fading memories, Pawlenty was a finalist in his party's 2008 veepstakes, only to be nudged aside by Palin, then governor of Alaska. From that he seems to have taken a lesson that it's good to be identified as new and different, and he is trying to locate himself within that sector of the Grand Old Party.

Pawlenty predicted that after November, there will be six to eight Republican governors and senators who are women, minorities or both. That, he said, will be "confirmation of the Republican Party modernizing while still being true to its values." He said it will also be transformational in breaking the stereotype of Republicans as "middle-aged white-guy CEOs" who belong to country clubs, drink Chablis (umm, who drinks that these days?) and play polo on weekends (does anyone know anyone who plays polo?)

In any case, Pawlenty presented himself as part of this transformation. Sure he's white, male, a governor and, on this occasion, dressed in a regulation dark suit and striped tie. But he's also a man of humble origins: truck-driver dad, youngest of five kids, first in family to graduate from college, mom died when he was 16. When you're in a VFW hall trying to talk to a voter who is wearing a Carhartt jacket and drinking a Miller High Life, Pawlenty said, "it helps to have a messenger that has walked in their shoes a bit."

As fate would have it, just as Pawlenty was saying all that, an e-mail arrived from Romney to announce endorsements in North Carolina. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is from a well-to-do political family and made a fortune running a private equity firm. Last year he sold his Utah ski house for nearly $5.25 million and his suburban Boston home for $3.5 million, which leaves him with an $895,000 townhouse near Boston and waterfront houses worth $22 million in New Hampshire and California. Point hammered home: Romney is rich, Pawlenty is not.

With his heavy focus on policy specifics, Pawlenty appeared to be sending an "I'm not Palin" message as well. I thought perhaps he might open with a narrative about the Minnesota miracle, some list of signature achievements. But instead he said he was just back from his fifth trip to Iraq and third to Afghanistan, and wanted to give us his impressions.

That is a lot of war-zone visits for a governor, dating to 2004. Clearly Pawlenty wanted to etch in our minds that he is a serious student of our wars, familiar with the region, the players and the state of play. In short, commander-in-chief material.

He is no Michael Steele on Afghanistan. Pawlenty says Americans need "strategic patience" there. "This idea that we're going to set an arbitrary deadline, an inflexible deadline" has very damaging ripple effects, he said. He called it "noteworthy" that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level administration figures appear to be "stepping back" from their July 2011 deadline to leave Afghanistan. Click play below to watch a clip of Pawlenty's Afghanistan comments:

To be fair, it's not clear that there was ever an inflexible deadline. In his December 2009 speech at West Point, Obama said we would "begin the transfer" of forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011 and "execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."

Pawlenty's critique of Obama goes way beyond the war in Afghanistan. He says the Arizona immigration law has been "wildly and irresponsibly and recklessly mischaracterized . . . by people who are quoted in the press, including by the president of the United States." He calls Obama's stimulus bill too large, too slow and mostly "government sustenance." More financial firms should have been allowed to fail, Pawlenty said, because "in the marketplace, you have to have consequences for reckless behavior." And the government was wrong to "take over" the auto companies ("the story underneath the story is that it was a soft landing for the UAW").

As for Obama's deficit reduction commission, Pawlenty said it would be a shame if it wasted time coming up with a package that includes tax increases. "I don't think any argument can be credibly made that Americans are undertaxed," he said. "And as a matter of realpolitik," he added, if Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress, tax increases would be a non-starter.

In his own state, he said, he slashed the rate of spending growth and now, "for first time in 150 years, I've cut spending in real terms." As for the feds, he said the government should cap Medicaid spending and turn it into a defined block grant to states. He also said he would "means test" cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security, so upper-income people would receive smaller increases; base the adjustments on wages instead of inflation; and offer new people coming into the system the option of private accounts.

Medicare, he added, should pay doctors and hospitals based on health outcomes rather than the "astonishingly stupid" fee-for-service model. That is a goal of the new health care law, which Pawlenty called "the Obamacare bill" and said would be a GOP target this fall.

Which brings us back to, oh yes, politics. It must be said that the words "2012" and "Sarah Palin" did not come up until perhaps 40 minutes into the hourlong breakfast. They were first spoken by a reporter, and they drew Pawlenty's briefest, least interesting response of the morning. He said he'd make a decision about the future early in 2011 and "it won't be dependent on what other people do or don't do." Palin, he said, can afford to wait longer than others because of her 'built-in level" of name recognition. Click play below to watch video of Pawlenty's comments on Palin:

T-Paw (who embraces the nickname) had nothing else to say about Palin. Asked about Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and the Tea Party, he praised them both. Bachmann, he said, is "a powerful, strong, clear voice" for conservatives and the country. The Tea Party, like any group, has a few bad apples, he replied to a question about racism, but overall is an invaluable, invigorating force. "I don't get overly worried about this raw energy that you see at the grass-roots level," he said, and recalled "at one time Ronald Reagan led a political insurgency."

If Pawlenty has a sense of humor, and I'm assured he does, it wasn't in evidence. I started scribbling -- and noticed others doing the same -- a few times when Pawlenty veered into what you might call inelegant turns of phrase. At one point, he riffed on average voters who wonder, "Are my kids' schools going to be good or are they going to suck?" At another, warning against tolerating illegal immigration, he referred to what befell New York when people were allowed to "pee on the sidewalks" (that led, he said, to purse-snatching, face-punching, window-breaking and "putting guns in your ribs.")

The impression Pawlenty wanted to leave was conservative, combative and substantive, and in that he succeeded. Whether any two-term governor with a law degree can compellingly paint himself as a working-class Everyman is more of a stretch. It'll be easier if Everywoman Palin doesn't run, and Romney does.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter. Listen to her discuss Pawlenty on WCCO-Minneapolis.

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I'm a conservative Republican. Pawlenty's a nice guy. I'm sick and tired of nice guys. Nice guys finish last. I want a Republican candidate that will take no prisoners. Pawlenty's not that guy.

July 27 2010 at 11:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Getting voted into office as a Repbulican in one of the most liberal states in the union shows that some liberals were tired of what was going on in their state, so Powlenty may have something going on for himself. I would like to see him speak about the issues at hand. Especially how Feddie Mac and Fannie Mae got this country into trouble by giving loans to people who could not afford them and now the rest of country has to pay for it. (look to congress & those Congressmen who are assigned to the so called finance committee's). I see now that FHA and VA may be in trouble too, because of the so called bureacat's giving loans to people who could not afford them even with no money down.Is this becoming "A Well-Fare Country".I do not mind helping people out, but where is the accountability.

July 27 2010 at 10:03 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Don't forget Huckabee.

July 27 2010 at 9:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Having grown up and lived in Minnesota for more than 50 years, I have seen that the state has truly become a very average ranking one compared to its days when we were so proud of our educational system, our health resources, our clean lakes and rivers. We now suffer a huge loss of educational dollars thanks to Gov. Pawlenty's budget cuts and his vetos. He has created a very negative climate in Minnesota by continually attacking programs for the middle class and poor...well, that's when he's actually IN the state. He has spent so much time outside of Minnesota setting up his political agenda that we have asked ourselves continuously, "What is he actually doing for the betterment of Minnesota?"
It reminds me of what the people of Arkansaw said about Gov. Clinton before his presidential race. The state has become a laughing stock of idiot polititians: Jesse Ventura, Michelle Backman and now Tim Pawlenty. He is quiet, well-mannered and nice looking...but don't be fooled, he has a strict agenda for cutting the middle class and keeping the wealthiest just that way-rich.

July 27 2010 at 7:00 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

Pawlenty is the worst governor Minnesota ever had. All people know about that state is the twin cities and Mayo clinic. However, away from the richer areas the residents are just hanging on. Pawlenty has cut funding to social programs, cities and schools. If you think the country is run by big business you haven't seen anything like you'd see under Pawlenty... His "austerity" programs only apply to the poor and middle class. I couldn't be more grateful to leave.

July 27 2010 at 5:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rickets99's comment

Sadly, it sounds like Pawlenty carries out the republican philosophy to cut spending on programs for middle and lower income folks so they can give big tax cuts to the richest people.

July 27 2010 at 6:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

How 'bout Newt and Cris Christy? I know they are two middle class white guys, but they are both articulate and have some concrete ideas about how to run the country. I don't think it's racist to chose good people with good ideas...I think it's racist to chose someone BECAUSE they're female, black or hispanic!

July 27 2010 at 5:41 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Oh yeah, he looks WASPy and harmless, but he's just as horrible as the other Republicans. He's just quieter and unassuming about it. Minnesota runs only for business. If you have any complaint about business--whether as an employee or consumer--forget about it. None of the MN agencies will help you. Pawlenty did his best to cut social services programs. Programs like the boys and girls club were forced to disband in some places. Necessary road work went undone. Public transportation went unfunded. Poorer MN towns were forced to make do for themselves under his massive cuts. If the US elects him they had better be prepared to adopt the widespread MN slogan: "Starving in the land of Pawlenty."

July 27 2010 at 5:38 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I ask all all Americans do your homework and study each and every one of these guys . Do not count on the media for they have an agenda and are in the tank for the left wing democrats . Come Nov. I will be voting all Democrats out and some phony Republicans for sure . It is the first step in getting rid of Obama and his cronies . This country is worth saving !

July 27 2010 at 5:37 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I don't know yet is Pawlenty is 'presidential material' but I feel totally duped by both Bush and Obama, who absolutely are not. Our nation needs much, much more than pretty speeches about hope to run this country. We need a deeply-vetted proven record of relevant accomplishments and leadership, not hopey dopey promises.

July 27 2010 at 5:00 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Pawlenty has made a mess of Minnesota. Why let him do it to America!!
Don't vote for this joker. He will give to the rich and take from the poor. That is his record. He would like to do away with Social Security. He is not for Health Care. He is a really bad leader. Minnesota is going to have a very hard time recovering from his mis-management.

July 27 2010 at 4:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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