Last month, Mitt Romney traveled to Southern California to host a roundtable for small business owners in an office park. A few days later, the Romney campaign sent former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – a top vice presidential prospect – to a very different venue: an ice rink in Cary, N.C.
Pawlenty, a former hockey player, conducted his own roundtable for “sports parents.” He then proceeded to lace up a pair of skates – hockey being the secular religion of his home state – and take a spin around the rink. Later that day, at the regional Romney headquarters in Raleigh, he delivered the ultimate barroom insult to President Obama: that he’s “all foam and no beer.” Then he shook every hand in the room.
In an election where Obama consistently bests Romney on measures of likability and empathy, it couldn’t hurt Romney – the Mormon son of an auto executive-turned-governor – to pick someone who has more in common with the average voter than he does. “People want to see that in politics right now, people that are like them and can relate to them,” said Dan Forest, a candidate for lieutenant governor of North Carolina who accompanied Pawlenty during the North Carolina swing. Forest said he likes Romney and finds him approachable, but also said that many people at the campaign stops praised Pawlenty’s lack of pretentiousness.
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Look no further than the two men’s choice of hairstyles. While Romney’s is sleek, gelled to perfection with nary a hair out of place, Pawlenty landed himself in local papers for growing a mullet during the downtime between the 2008 election (when he was a finalist to be Arizona Sen. John McCain’s vice president) and his own brief presidential bid last year.
It is Pawlenty’s upbringing in South St. Paul, Minn., that offers him the most potential for connection with voters. In his autobiography, Courage to Stand, he writes about a town that was supported by its many stockyards before they closed down and left high unemployment in their wake.
“Life on 12th Avenue was filled with simple pleasures. People seemed to make the most of whatever they had,” he wrote. South St. Paul was a place, Pawlenty said, “where neighbors mattered, where family mattered, where church mattered, where respect for things mattered. Everywhere you turned, you saw hardworking, fun-loving people, doing whatever they could to get by, most all of them living by the rules and trying to do the right thing.”
Pawlenty’s father was a truck driver who took him to work to help with odd jobs. His mother was a homemaker who died of ovarian cancer when Pawlenty was a teenager. Not long after, his father was laid off from his job and young Tim took a job at the local grocery store that would help put him through college – the first member of his family to attend.
"People can see Tim Pawlenty and say, 'I get that, I can relate to his background. I lost my mother, or I lost a parent, or I’m the only one in my family to go to college, or my dad was a truck driver and lost his job.' He probably can relate all too clearly with what Americans are going through now,” said Ann Marie Hauser, who was communications director for Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. During his short-lived candidacy, she said, he shined in a one-on-one format, either as the subject of interviews or answering voter questions at town halls.
That his background makes him a relatable figure has not escaped Pawlenty’s notice. Many Minnesotans knew the story and it wasn’t a central part of his persona when he was in the state legislature or running for governor, according to Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. But once Pawlenty stepped onto the national stage, it entered his personal narrative in a big way – from the January 2011 publication of his book to his appearances on behalf of Romney, including the one at the ice rink.
Moreover, Pawlenty’s down-to-earth persona has served him well in selling Republican policies to voters with middling or low incomes over the objections of Democrats, who say those same policies would hurt them. That is where he could be truly valuable to Romney.
“He drives Democrats crazy. It literally doesn’t compute in their heads because they look at his policies, they come to the conclusion they’re hostile to middle- and lower-income people, and then they see those voters turning around and respecting or even liking Pawlenty, and they just don’t get it,” Jacobs said. “I think it’s his personality and his ability to stretch his political following beyond just the usual Republican base.”
Vice President Joe Biden, whose parents had their share of financial problems, grew up in blue-collar Scranton, Pa., and has been the Obama administration’s ambassador to blue-collar voters. Were Romney to pick Pawlenty as his running mate, there would be a certain symmetry to the Democratic and Republican tickets. At the top, the reserved man with the nontraditional story. And next to him, the partner with whom people would feel comfortable sharing a beer.