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Pawlenty's Appeal to GOP: I Won't Embarrass You

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's bid to win the GOP presidential nomination hasn't exactly been catching on fire. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a story about his candidacy under the headline "Will Republican Race's First In Be the First Out?"   

The RealClearPolitics poll average puts him in eighth place in the crowded GOP race. Fellow Land-o'-Laker Rep. Michele Bachmann fares better -- second place -- perhaps because she does not try to match T-Paw's mastery of "Minnesota nice."   

Then again, nice guys finish last. So Pawlenty has started talking tough -- about the need for a nominee with "executive experience" who "has a record of not just rhetoric but results."   

Pawlenty's dilemma: He's not polarizing, and polarizing generates buzz, which boosts poll numbers, during the early name-recognition phase of a primary. So he has to find a way to tell GOP voters: Unlike the showboats in the field -- no need to name Bachmann, Newt Gingrich or businessman Herman Cain -- I am the Republican who won't embarrass you.   

(Trust me. Republicans are sick of going to parties where Democrats buttonhole them so that they can rant about Sarah Palin. No need to double down on that.)   

Despite the early poll success of the firebrands, as the election approaches, GOP primary voters tend to be highly pragmatic. Their first concern will be whether a candidate can beat President Barack Obama in November 2012. They know that a polarizing nominee cannot win. They know that a nominee who is light on experience cannot win.

Spokesman Alex Conant summed up T-Paw's strength, noting, "He was elected and then re-elected in a blue state as a movement conservative, and he governed as a movement conservative." And he won re-election in 2006, not a good year for the GOP.   

Pawlenty comes from a working-class Democratic family. His mother died of cancer when he was in high school, after making his elder siblings promise that he would graduate college. He was the first member of his family to do so.   

He pushes his conservatism in a way that is palatable to independents. As he explained in his memoirs, "Courage to Stand: An American Story," "I'm pro-life and in favor of traditional marriage, but when I talk about these issues, I watch my tone. Steady, measured speech does not diminish the strength of my views; angry outbursts convince no one."   

Pawlenty frequently points out that he balanced the state budget without raising taxes. OK, so the second budget came with a 75-cent "health impact fee" on cigarettes. That tells me Pawlenty is not so ideologically pure that he cannot cut a deal.   

When he was a rooky governor, the Democratic Legislature gave Pawlenty a balanced budget without tax increases -- and he crowed that the legislators had agreed to "pass all our bills." In his memoirs, Pawlenty writes, "I didn't mean for it to come off as gloating. But it did." Democratic lawmakers felt steamrolled and "resolved to never let me win again. Often lessons are learned in defeat. But this one I learned in victory. A measure of grace is always essential."   

In the negative column, Pawlenty may be too nice. In June, T-Paw tied rival Mitt Romney's universal Massachusetts health care plan to Obamacare -- he dubbed it "Obamneycare" -- yet failed to press Romney on his record during a CNN debate. "He'd be the first to tell you that the CNN debate was a missed opportunity," Conant responded.   

Well, there may not be a lot of missed opportunities in the future. Texas Gov. Rick Perry may jump into the race, where he instantly could become the alternative to front-runner Romney.   

"We've seen this movie a couple of times" before, said Conant -- rattling off such names as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Donald Trump and Fox News host Mike Huckabee. They all floated their names but didn't jump into the drink. "And now we have Perry."  

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