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Sam’s Club President

Runner-up to Sarah Palin in 2008, blue-state budget-balancer Tim Pawlenty has his eyes on a bigger prize. 

By From the March 2011 issue

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Then-minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty stumbled into a moment of unintentional comedy on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show last June. The liberal Stewart had asked the inevitable question about the 2012 presidential race: "Will you run?" "I really don't know," Pawlenty deadpanned, and explained that he lacked some of the typical qualifications: "I don't have a billion dollars. I don't have novelty," he said, and then, just as he realized the innuendo involved, he let slip, "I don't have a big… schtick." The audience and Stewart erupted at the suggestive remark, and only after a few minutes of uproarious laughter from all involved could Pawlenty clarify that no ribaldry was intended: "That's 'S-C-H-I…'"

Pawlenty might not have a schtick, but he does have a résumé that none of his possible competitors for the Republican presidential nomination could boast. As governor, he developed a reputation as an efficient chief executive by battling a Democratic state legislature to balance the budget, cut spending, and implement a number of conservative reforms. Unlike his likely GOP nomination rival Mitt Romney, he has no blue-state baggage on abortion or health care. Unlike Mitch Daniels, the pro-life evangelical has never called for a "truce" on social issues. And Pawlenty's national stature has been rising ever since his name appeared below Sarah Palin's on John McCain's vice-presidential shortlist in 2008 -- Palin prevailed, says a Pawlenty aide, because McCain "wanted a woman."

Yet Pawlenty sometimes sounds as if he wishes he'd run for a third term, instead of seeking a national role. A seasoned veteran of partisan budget battles, he expressed regret that he wouldn't be in office to see Republicans take control of the state legislature. Pawlenty vowed not to raise taxes upon his election in 2002, and kept that pledge over two terms despite having to square off against Democratic legislatures. (Smokers paying the tobacco "fee" he imposed in 2008 may not quite agree.) That's no mean feat, considering that Pawlenty had to erase deficits every two years (Minnesota, like many states, uses biennial budgeting), beginning with the record $4.2 billion shortfall that greeted him when he took office and continuing through the Great Recession.

Pawlenty's last budget standoff may have been the toughest. Unable to resolve his conflicts with Democrats in the legislature, Pawlenty resorted to "unallotment," an obscure law that enabled him to make unilateral spending cuts to balance the budget. The Wall Street Journal praised the move as "deft and amusing," but the Minnesota Supreme Court wasn't amused. In May, it ruled that Pawlenty had overstepped his constitutional bounds. The decision created a $3 billion deficit with only days of the legislative session to spare. The legislature passed measures to balance the budget by raising taxes, but Pawlenty held firm and vetoed them. He forced the legislature into a special session and in the early morning hours, it finally agreed to a balanced budget without tax increases.

PAWLENTY'S STAND ON TAXES, not surprisingly, is his proudest achievement. "[Minnesota] is a very liberal state," he reminded TAS. "Ronald Reagan won Massachusetts twice. He never won Minnesota. In terms of taxes, I've bent the curve here. We made it out of the top 10 in taxes." In the pantheon of Minnesota politicians -- which includes such liberal heroes as Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone -- Pawlenty is a conservative outlier.

Balanced budgets aren't his only legacy. He enacted a property tax cap and eliminated the marriage penalty. He consistently advocated tort reform and the reduction of government bureaucracy. In February of last year, at the height of the health care debate, Pawlenty took to the Washington Post's op-ed page to advertise Minnesota's health care reforms, which demand performance pay for health care providers and "measure and set performance metrics for providers and make the results public." Ostensibly the column was intended for President Obama and Congress, but it also served to contrast Pawlenty's reforms with those of former governor Romney in Massachusetts. Contrasted with Romneycare and Obamacare, Pawlentycare comes off looking good -- Minnesota boasts the highest percentage of residents using health savings accounts.

Pawlenty's cost-cutting and conservatism in hostile territory have come at a steep political price. A Survey USA poll last spring put his approval rating at 42 percent, down several points from the same time a year earlier and the lowest he's ever experienced (a contemporaneous Rasmussen poll pegged him at 49 percent approval). Pawlenty chalks that up to timing -- his numbers fell every year while he battled the Democratic majority during the legislative session -- and the environment: "This is a state that elected Al Franken," he notes.

None of which is to say that Pawlenty isn't without conservative critics. On the national level, one comment that has come up frequently was his admonishment to Minnesota Republicans that the GOP "need[s] to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." After a decade of Obama's big-government liberalism and George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," conservative voters might not have an appetite for such class warfare-inflected catchphrases. The image of "the party of Sam's Club," especially, is now associated with Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's 2008 book Grand New Party, an explication of an agenda that many on the right consider big-government conservatism. Similarly, Pawlenty's "Q Comp" program of merit pay for teachers has been derided by some conservatives as a cash handout.

Minneapolis radio commentator Jason Lewis, an occasional substitute host for Rush Limbaugh, is a frequent Pawlenty critic. In a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he urged McCain to pick anybody but Pawlenty as his running mate. Lewis concedes that the last two years of Pawlenty's governorship have been "somewhat of an improvement" (Pawlenty's "been acting responsibly"), but still thinks the Minnesotan might be a RINO: Republican In Name Only. Lewis argues that conservatives will scrutinize Pawlenty's approach to environmental issues, and maintains that the governor's 2010 energy bill -- which requires Minnesota to obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2025, a measure popular with environmental advocates -- will be his "albatross."

IF PAWLENTY'S RECORD attracts only wonks, his supporters hope the American people will identify with his personal story. The youngest of five children, he was born into a working-class family. His parents, he recalls, liked to hold family discussions about politics at the dinner table. "We debated, pretty intensely, policy issues in my house," the governor says. "It wasn't at a high level but everyone had a gut reaction to the news of the day." Those discussions "seemed meaningful" to him, and his mother noticed his interest and abilities even in his high school days. Pawlenty's father was a truck driver and his mother a homemaker, who died when he was 16 years old. Before dying, she made his four siblings promise that "Timmy" would continue his education. He's the only member of his family to attend college.

Pawlenty volunteered for the College Republicans as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and then went to the University of Minnesota Law School. He worked a few years as a labor law attorney until an interest in local issues propelled him to run for the Eagan, Minnesota, city council. He won the seat at age 28. Three years later, Pawlenty was elected to the lower house of the state legislature, and won five reelections before ascending to the Governor's Residence in 2002.

Pawlenty's wife, Mary, a petite, pretty, no-nonsense woman, is as homegrown as her husband. The Edina native initially preferred her husband's involvement in politics to remain on a smaller scale. "The local level was wonderful," she recalls of his time on city council. "Then he decided to run for the legislature. That was fine too. Then he decided he wanted to run for governor. I thought, ‘Really?' There's just no way he's going to win." Mary refrained from bursting her husband's bubble and instead gave the aspiring governor the encouragement he needed, thinking a statewide campaign would "get it out of his system." Her support worked better than planned, and his win surprised them both.

The couple met at Minnesota Law. Landing in his section of tort class, Mary fell in love with the sound of Tim's voice while sitting in front of him. Mary was appointed to a judgeship she maintained for 13 years before going on to become general counsel with a local arbitration firm. Though pundits love to argue about Pawlenty's future, his wife is mum on the subject. "Life is so unpredictable in so many ways, particularly in politics. I don't try and see around the corner," she says.

Mary, who began attending the non-denominational Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie in high school, has shaped Tim's faith more than anyone else. Tim was raised Catholic but migrated toward his wife's evangelical Protestantism after the two "talked a lot about faith" in law school. That time was "a turning point for Tim," Mary recalls, in his views on faith and his choice of church. The couple were married at Wooddale by senior pastor Leith Anderson, and have attended the church and cultivated a relationship with Anderson ever since. When the collapse of the I-35 bridge in August 2007 made national headlines, Anderson prayed with Tim over the phone, asking God to give him wisdom in the midst of tragedy. He says that Tim's "Christian faith has always been clear and strong for me to observe." One such observation: on the day of the last gubernatorial election debate of 2006, Tim chose to attend church instead of using the time for cramming.

Although Anderson says he's never known Tim to leverage his faith for political purposes, his politics and religion do intersect at times. In his two terms, he appointed five judges to the Minnesota Supreme Court. They all share his pro-life convictions. Pawlenty opposes same-sex marriage and public funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last year, he said, "God's in charge. There are some people who say, ‘Pawlenty, don't bring that up. It's politically incorrect.' Hogwash, I say!" Pawlenty is a social conservative, if lower-key than a populist like Mike Huckabee.

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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Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.