The case against Tim Pawlenty

at 11:07 AM ET, 03/23/2011


Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is running for president in 2012. Can he win? (REUTERS/Brian C. Frank/Files)
On Tuesday we made the case for why former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty could end up as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

Today, we argue the opposite case. As always, your thoughts are welcome in the comments section below.

* Nice but...:: Pawlenty is never going to set the world on fire with his personality. And, while he has improved on the stump over the last year (or so) he remains somewhat charismatically challenged. The recent history of presidential nomination fights suggests that the best (only?) way for non-frontrunners to emerge in crowded fields is by sheer force of personality. (Mike Huckabee , Barack Obama , John McCain etc.). Pawlenty's problem could well be exacerbated by the contours of the field; if Huckabee, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich all run, there will be some of the party’s biggest personalities running, making Pawlenty seem small by comparison.The danger for Pawlenty is that he becomes just another one of the second-tier candidates running for the nomination in voters’ eyes — in much the same way that Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson all morphed together during the 2008 Democratic race.

* Candidate Unknown: Pawlenty has spent the better part of the last year courting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire but, even on his best day, he doesn’t crack double digits in any poll we’ve seen out of these early voting states. While Pawlenty allies note that he is making steady progress and that lots of people who have gone on to win nomination fights were unknown at this stage of the race, the 2012 field has the potential to be historically anomalous. Why? Because there are so many candidates with high name identification looking at the race; Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are all very well known — and well liked — commodities in the eyes of Republican primary voters. If all four run — unlikely but possible — there will be a relatively small group of people looking for a candidate to get behind. That fact complicates the path to victory for all of the lesser known candidates — including Pawlenty.

* Check the record: Pawlenty will run as a conservative governor who led a blue state for eight years. (Worth noting: That’s the exact same message Romney ran on in 2008.) And, while Pawlenty’s record viewed broadly should be an asset to him in the race, eight years of governing inevitably creates some instances that can be used by his opponents to cast him as insufficiently conservative. Take Pawlenty’s decision to sign a budget bill that included a 75-cent-per-pack “health impact” fee on cigarettes. As Jason Lewis, a prominent conservative talk radio host in Minnesota wrote in a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “No one was fooled. User fees are generally charged to ensure that those who use a government service pay for the cost of providing that service. In this case, however, it was obvious that smokers were just being tapped to fund health-care entitlement programs.” The decision also drew the ire of national anti-tax groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform; “There is no way to put lipstick on that tax-increase pig,” Norquist said at the time. There’s almost certainly other instances like the “health impact” fee in Pawlenty’s record. And his opponents’ opposition researchers are already on the hunt for them.

* First Timer: It’s no secret that Republicans tend to follow a next-guy-in-line approach when it comes to picking their presidential nominees. That is, the person perceived as having finished second in one presidential race tends to have a leg up for the nomination the next time around. That phenomenon is widely attributed to the fact that Republican voters like to support someone they feel comfortable with — and that’s true. But, lost in that analysis is the fact that running for president is unlike any other race for elected office, and candidates who do it once learn invaluable lessons that they bring to bear on the next campaign. Pawlenty has yet to make any major mistakes on the campaign trail but they will come — it’s the nature of the process for someone who has never done this before. That could go double for Pawlenty who came up in the (relatively) friendly confines of Minnesota politics. A presidential race is different in kind than running for governor of Minnesota and there will be an adjustment period for Pawlenty. The question is whether he can persevere when the campaign hits bumps in the road.

 
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