Tim Pawlenty is not going to light the world on fire. His speaking style will never be described as awe-inspiring, even by his most charitable admirers. But in politics, the flashiest contender doesn't always win, and Pawlenty's brand of capable, if a bit boring, technocrat could be exactly what the Republican Party needs in 2012.
Any campaign against an incumbent must answer two fundamental questions: Why should voters fire that incumbent, and do they have a credible alternative to whom they can turn? Without the latter, success convincing voters of the former doesn't matter. Pawlenty will spend a significant part of the next year aiming to convince Republicans he can offer that credible alternative.
Pawlenty will rely on a record he believes is a sufficient answer to that question. His stump speech leans heavily on cutting government spending and fighting off most tax increases. He will face questions from rivals on his position on cap-and-trade legislation—he once favored, and now opposes, a proposed cap-and-trade system—but, for the two-term former governor of a state that hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican since 1972, his record has few blemishes he would like to gloss over before a conservative crowd.
(Democrats already have a thick file on Pawlenty. When he announced he would form an exploratory committee, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party issued a scathing research document blasting Pawlenty for leaving the state in a fiscal crisis, for raising billions in taxes and fees, and for allowing the state to lose its perfect credit rating.)
Unspoken in making the contention that he is the credible presidential alternative is that other contenders in the GOP field cannot make the same case. Passion can excite a base—that's why former Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee lead the GOP field, why Newt Gingrich has been a shadow over every Republican field since 1996, and why Mitt Romney rarely opens his mouth without lambasting the Obama administration.
But Pawlenty embodies the stereotype of his home state, the "Minnesota Nice" attitude that leaves him smiling serenely even while tearing into Obama. He is by no means a perfect orator, and his aides admit he won't be able to go toe-to-toe with Obama on the soaring rhetoric. Attack-dog politics don't come naturally to Pawlenty, either. (While he's getting better at it, he has notably backed off criticizing Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts—although he still draws a contrast between Romney’s plan and his own proposal to fully repeal the bill.)
Sometimes, the nice, if boring, technocrat can win. Consider the 2010 election cycle, a boon for Republicans. Senate contenders who won rarely offered the flash and presence of many of the Republicans who lost: Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, and Roy Blunt are hardly thrilling orators, and they don't give the base huge doses of red meat. Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Ken Buck gave the base exactly what they wanted, offering no compromise with the other side. Portman, Toomey, and Blunt are now senators; Angle, O'Donnell, and Buck are not.
In the months leading up to his announcement this week that he would take initial legal steps toward launching a formal presidential campaign, Pawlenty hasn't attracted a horde of raving true believers. But he has laid a foundation to make the credible case that he is the candidate best attuned to the Republican primary electorate, and that he is the one best able to turn the 2012 campaign into a referendum on President Obama.
Pawlenty's aides spent the past year setting up a travel schedule that would allow him to meet the key players in New Hampshire and Iowa. Few jumped on his bandwagon straight away, but that hasn't been the goal. Instead, Pawlenty made good first impressions. Only the most partisan fans of another candidate dislike Pawlenty; virtually everyone else, while not necessarily overwhelmed, walks away with a positive impression.
Indeed, Pawlenty appears to have the most room to grow, according to early state surveys. A recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire for WMUR-TV showed 34 percent of New Hampshire Republicans had a favorable impression of him, while just 9 percent had an unfavorable view. That ratio was far better than for any candidate save Romney (73 percent favorable versus 16 percent unfavorable). But few voters are undecided on Romney, while Pawlenty still has the chance to make a good first impression on the rest.
The survey, conducted January 28 through February 7 among 357 likely Republican primary voters, showed other, more flashy candidates had far higher unfavorable ratings. Opinion is split on candidates like former House speaker Gingrich (41 percent favorable versus 40 percent unfavorable), Rep. Ron Paul of Texas (36 percent to 35 percent), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (18 percent to 19 percent), and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (18 percent to 19 percent). Voters have a positive view of former Arkansas governor Huckabee (50 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable) and an unfavorable view of Alaska's ex-governor Palin (33 percent to 50 percent).
The UNH/WMUR poll is but a snapshot, and no similarly reliable poll has been conducted in Iowa since the middle of 2010. But Pawlenty's team points out that he has set himself up for success in both states. He has attracted top-name hires in Iowa (former Huckabee aide Eric Woolson) and New Hampshire (one-time Romney backer Rich Killion), and he will roll out a first round of endorsements in coming weeks. In total, said WMUR political director James Pindell, Pawlenty is working early states unlike any other candidate.
Pawlenty has openly acknowledged that he is trying to bridge the gaps within the GOP, appealing to tea party voters, Christian evangelicals, and good-government conservatives at the same time. "I want to be every person's candidate. That's my goal," Pawlenty said recently, in response to a query from my colleague Beth Reinhard.
He has miles to go before he can achieve that goal. But if he is the slow and steady tortoise plodding along against a field of sprinting hares, he has a chance to give the Republican Party a qualified, if not especially thrilling, face. And in a year in which the GOP hopes to make the elections a referendum on Obama, that could be their best shot at toppling the entrenched incumbent.
This article appears in the March 24, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.