Runner-up to Sarah Palin in 2008, blue-state budget-balancer Tim Pawlenty has his eyes on a bigger prize.
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PAWLENTY HAS BEEN METHODICALLY doing everything that would be expected of someone planning a presidential campaign. Over the last two years, he has steadily increased his appearances on cable and radio talk shows, from Dennis Miller to CNN. Since last year he’s been traversing the country promoting his new political action committee, Freedom First. Despite his efforts, his attendance at such events as last year’s early presidential CPAC cattle call left attendees mostly unimpressed. It didn’t help when he urged the CPAC crowd to emulate Tiger Woods’s estranged wife and “take a nine-iron to big government.” On being asked about that episode, Pawlenty merely shrugs it off. “It was just a joke,” he says. “Some people have to lighten up.” (One assumes that his higher profile will win him a more admiring reception at this year’s CPAC, which will gather right after this issue goes to press.)
Those who know Pawlenty say his sense of humor is one of his biggest assets. Steve Sviggum, the current commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and one of Pawlenty’s closest friends, appreciated the levity Pawlenty brought when they served together in the state legislature, remembering that “[Tim] would start a speech on the House floor with a Peter, Paul and Mary song.”
It was there in the Minnesota House, between rounds of playing cards, basketball, and foosball-“He’s a dynamite foosball player,” Sviggum says-Pawlenty began pruning Minnesota’s liberal branches, hoping to uncover conservative undergrowth. The friends spent “hundreds of negotiation and strategy sessions” with their Democratic peers. “When I first came to the House we were fighting a lot of history, bias in favor of liberal perspective, the establishment in Minnesota,” Sviggum recalls. “We were fighting an uphill battle and making progress.” The melee failed to tire Pawlenty; if anything, he found hope in those five terms in the House. “I could see what the state needed, at least in my view, and was inspired by that,” Pawlenty says. “Even though the hours were long and the work was difficult, I was energized by that.”
Can Pawlenty find success in taking his show on the road? Freedom First raised $1.9 million in its first six months and came to the aid of competitive Republican candidates in the 2010 cycle. Under Freedom First’s auspices, Pawlenty began to assemble the nucleus for a top-notch presidential campaign team. Alex Conant, Freedom First’s communications director, was the spokesman for the Republican National Committee in 2009. Freedom First employs conservative Internet operations powerhouses, including online strategists Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn. Before he started his own political media firm, Engage, Ruffini was the Republican National Committee’s go-to guy for anything online-the Sergey Brin of the GOP. He says Freedom First’s online strategy and website are leading the way when it comes to conservative politics and the Internet. “We haven’t seen anything else, at least in this particular way, of allowing people to give feedback of what races they think are important and to really give their opinion.”
Liz Mair, along with Patrick Hynes of Hynes Communications, handles online communications for Pawlenty’s outfit, particularly online media outreach and blogger engagement. She appreciates Pawlenty’s persona; his attractive qualities make her job easier. He mingles among groups with ease, and converses with approachable, yet reassuring, authority. Mair chuckles when she remembers the blogger happy hour they organized at CPAC. “After Pawlenty walked in the room I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He was talking about all manner of things with the bloggers. Politics. Football. He’s comfortable.”
Indeed, the staff of Freedom First is primed for a 2012 run: Sara Taylor is the former White House political director; Phil Musser is the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association; and Terry Nelson is the former Republican National Committee political director. As one longtime Minnesota political observer told me: “Pawlenty has left the building, so to speak. He’s all but shed his Minnesota operatives for a new cast from D.C. He’s running for VP now.”
Or perhaps something higher. “Pawlenty is doing the things that would be necessary to put him in the position to run for president if he wants to,” says Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and longtime conservative activist who co-chairs Freedom First. Weber calls Pawlenty “one of the most genuine people you’ll come across in politics.”
Which is why Pawlenty can pull off lines like: “My parents didn’t have PhDs from an academic institution but they had PhDs in the stuff of life” — a typically homespun quip. “They lived life with good, basic common sense. The country needs this too. When I talk about this issue, it helps people to say I’ve walked in your shoes.”
Whether that’s enough to make Pawlenty presidential material is anyone’s guess. Being the down-to-earth nice guy who’s eager to balance budgets truly isn’t much of a schtick, especially in the charisma-oriented Age of Obama. But the country doesn’t need a schtick — it needs a balanced budget.
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