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Could the GOP’s “Casper Milquetoast” turn out to be its surprise standard-bearer in 2012? Former two-term Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty plans to announce his candidacy any day now, but few Republicans seem to think that Pawlenty has much of a shot against Obama. His bland personality and undistinguished record of accomplishment while in office largely killed his political chances in 2008. Since then, he hasn’t done much new to inspire confidence or to gain significant name recognition outside the Midwest.
But with so many other top GOP prospects either dropping out (Pence and Thune), refusing to run (Christie), reluctant to declare their candidacies (Daniels and Huckabee), or, llike Mitt Romney, already starting to fade, the unpleasant task of trying to unseat a still personally popular President Obama could well fall to “T-Paw” (or, as he’s increasingly known among Democrats, “Tea-Paw”).
Pawlenty’s all but signalled his intention to run. He just gave a highly-publicized mini-speech blasting the administration’s policy towards Egypt and Libya – in New Hampshire no less – on the heels of recent appearances before influential Christian conservative groups in Iowa. Even more significant perhaps, the Des Moines Register reported on March 9 that Mike Huckabee’s former top political advisor in Iowa, Eric Woolson – the man credited with allowing the former Arkansas Gov. to pull off an upset win there in 2008 – is joining Pawlenty’s strategy team.
Pawlenty actually began gearing up for the 2012 campaign last summer. He was the first GOP candidate in Iowa to form a state political action committee to attract campaign donations and to establish a political infrastructure. He also retained the services of well known and widely regarded national GOP operatives such as Terry Nelson and Sarah Taylor, who helped George Bush win re-election in 2004 and who have strong ties to the party’s moderate wing. Not coincidentally, both Nelson and Taylor originally hail from Iowa.
And unlike Huckabee – who’s publicly bemoaned his notorious fundraising troubles as one reason he may not run this year – Pawlenty’s been positioning himself to attract big money. His PAC’s Minnesota co-chairs – former Target CEO Bob Ulrich, Voyager Bank CEO Tim Owens, and Marvin Windows president Susan Marvin – are thought to be key conduits to the major national campaign donors Pawlenty needs to match Mitt Romney’s campaign war chest. Romney’s counting on an early win in New Hampshire – where he enjoys a commanding lead in the polls – to cushion a possible follow-up defeat in Iowa, and to allow him to compete in the remaining primaries.
But Pawlenty potentially has a leg up: unlike Romney, and nearly every other prospective GOP contender, he has yet to alienate one of the party’s two main wings – which in a party this divided, could well leave him the last man or woman standing, let alone running, next year.
How conservative is Pawlenty? As a staunch defender of “traditional” marriage, he says he’s for re-instating the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy towards gay service members, and would even support defunding the military until that goal’s achieved. He’s also a proud deficit-hawk who’s been in the forefront of GOP criticism of public-sector unions as the primary cause of state fiscal deficits (he calls the unions “exploiters”). He says he’d like to see the unions’ collective bargaining rights abolished, and their generous pension and health benefits curtailed. Not surprisingl,. he’s hailed Gov. Walker’s ongoing assault on public sector unions in Wisconsin as a victory for “freedom.”
Not that conservatives haven’t taken aim at Pawlenty in the past – they have. An early bone of contention was his support in 2005 for a cigarette tax, and his later endorsement of renewable energy programs that were substantially to the left of what other governors were proposing. However, none of these initiatives, including a children’s health care reform program that parallels Romney’s, have gone so far that they would disqualify Pawlenty among conservatives, or even lead to charges, as they have with Romney, that’s he’s a closet RINO (Republic In Name Only). At the same time, should he win the nomination, expect Pawlenty to trot out these initiatives as a way of project himself to moderates and independents as something more than a stalking horse for the right.
Ironically, the biggest challenge to Pawlenty might come from an unexpected source: fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michelle Bachmann. The ultra-conservative Tea party princess is considering a presidential run of her own, and as head of the new House Tea Party Caucus, she’s already gained enormous visibility among grassroots conservatives, many of whom prefer her to Palin. Some argue that a serious Bachmann run could drain some of Pawlenty’s Midwest support, and could even threaten his ability to win or place second in the Iowa caucuses – which would doom his candidacy.
But an alternative theory is emerging: if Bachmann jumps in, she might split the Christian conservative vote further away from Huckabee or Palin (or both), giving Pawlenty even more breathing room. Neither Palin nor Huckabee has Pawlenty’s standing among party moderates, and Huckabee, in fact, is distrusted by fiscal conservatives. Which means, on balance, the entry of the feisty and gaffe-prone Bachmann, who no one considers electable, could turn out to be a net plus for Pawlenty, casting him as a “respectable” rightist relative to the party’s “yahoos.”
One commentator has compared Pawlenty’s quest for the GOP nomination to the slow grinding of a detective’s case. As new clues are uncovered, the accumulation of evidence, over time, gradually points to one man. But there’s an important caveat: Pawlenty still lacks a base in the primary-rich South to match other prospective GOP contenders, including not only Romney, but Louisiana Gov. Haley Barbour and former Georgia congressman and House speaker Newt Gingrich. He’s also yet to establish a serious presence out West. Which means, with out a strong second-place showing in New Hampshire, and a win or near-win in Iowa, Pawlenty may not even make it to the list of prime suspects, let alone become the villain.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at email@example.com