From Monday's Star Tribune
Governor has D.C.'s attention
Pawlenty's legislative success turned heads on the national political scene.
By Patricia Lopez, Star Tribune
Last update: May 27, 2007 – 11:51 PM
Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota congressman, walked into a book party in Washington the other night primed to talk up his choice for president in 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "But when I got there," Weber said with a laugh, "all anyone wanted to talk to me about was Tim Pawlenty."
In the aftermath of a legislative session that just ended with Pawlenty fending off a barrage of proposed tax increases, the Minnesota governor's national profile is rising, as is talk of him becoming a vice presidential candidate.
"He's a Republican who's saying no [on taxes] and making it stick," Weber said. "That he accomplished it against big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate enhances the credit he gets for that."
Even as Pawlenty insists he has no national ambitions and intends to finish his second term, he is a national cochairman of the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He is also poised to become the next head of the National Governors Association, a spot that will give him key political connections and a pulpit on national issues. And he'll be hosting the Republican National Convention when it comes to the Twin Cities in 2008.
Discreetly, Pawlenty has stuffed his weekends full of appearances for McCain, parachuting into all the usual presidential hotspots: Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.
With the legislative session at full tilt a few weeks ago, Pawlenty hauled himself halfway across the country to open a McCain campaign office in Manchester, N.H.
Just one flaw?
Pawlenty won reelection in November by just 1 percentage point, but his political fortunes apparently have improved since then. A new Survey USA poll puts his approval rating at 55 percent.
Pawlenty is "seen as young and vigorous, a successful executive in a purple state," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and a national political observer. "That makes him an attractive property."
But Sabato said Pawlenty has one big flaw that could dim his national stature. "He's a conservative Republican in a state that has not gone Republican in a presidential race in 35 years," he said. A perceived inability to deliver his home turf could limit Pawlenty's usefulness to a presidential candidate, Sabato said.
DFLers, meanwhile, see additional flaws. "I think [Pawlenty is] exactly the kind of Republican we want to see on the ticket," said Andy O'Leary, executive director of the Minnesota DFL. "He lost 39 legislative seats in his time as governor and has never won a majority of votes in the state.
"It's sad he put his national ambition above those of the state. Yes, he'll be able to say he didn't increase taxes, and that's a good talking point for the Republican Party dinner circuit. But independent voters will see it for what it is: stonewalling and standing in the way of progress."
With its 10 electoral votes, Minnesota is not a decisive prize in a presidential campaign. But as a swing state and GOP convention host, it's expected to be at the epicenter of the Midwest battleground.
"He pulls off the trifecta of geography, ideology and overall profile," said Jennifer Duffy, co-editor of the Cook Report, a longstanding Washington political report. "That he got through his legislative session without a tax increase is a big win for him nationally," she added. Republicans, she said, "are realizing they've strayed from their core values, balanced budgets being one of those. So anyone who held onto that is looking pretty good."
Duffy said Pawlenty also may have distinguished himself on an issue that is divisive, but that moves the conservative base -- immigration. He has staked out fairly strict views on immigration and vetoed a higher-education budget bill, in part because it contained provisions for the DFL Dream Act, which would have allowed illegal immigrants to enroll in college at in-state tuition rates.
In a recent New Hampshire blog interview on YouTube, Pawlenty touted to a national audience the same agenda he pushed through the legislative session: renewable energy, environmental improvements and accountability and innovation in education.
Pawlenty, who at 48 remains young enough to style himself as a Next Gen Republican, also noted that traditionalists have been a bit slow-footed on issues of interest to younger voters such as the environment and energy policy.
How that message is communicated also counts, said Pawlenty, who during his reelection campaign waged a Target-style television ad campaign with snappy music and a poppy-red backdrop.
Balanced off against McCain, the oldest Republican candidate in the field so far, Pawlenty projects the kind of fresh, vibrant energy that could make for an attractive ticket, Sabato said.
'Not a zealot'
Dan Hofrenning, a political science professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., said Pawlenty's persona as a social and fiscal conservative with personal charisma will keep him on the short list.
"The best Republicans manage to be socially conservative without alienating economic conservatives who are socially liberal. Pawlenty manages to do that," Hofrenning said. "He's also compromised enough on some conservative issues to show that he's serious, but not a zealot." Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, Pawlenty's former chief of staff and a close friend, said he had his doubts about Pawlenty's strategy at the beginning of the legislative session, when he proposed a nearly 10 percent increase in spending.
"I thought he had set the floor too high," Weaver said. "I hate to say this, really hate it, but he was right and I was wrong. He proposed enough spending that he didn't look like a cheapskate.
"If I'm a presidential candidate," Weaver said, "looking around for an effective, young, articulate, conservative politician with national prominence, how do you not look at him?"
This is all well and good, except for the fact that any GOP presidential candidate is going to have a tough road in the 08 general election, especially if US troops are still in Iraq with the meter running at $1 billion a week. May 2007 has proven to be yet another particularly lethal month for US troops.