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Tim Pawlenty could get bounce or burn from Minnesota crisis

at 12:26 PM ET, 07/01/2011

Tim Pawlenty (R) says a government shutdown could be a good thing for his home state.

But is the shutdown in Minnesota a good thing for the former Minnesota governor’s 2012 presidential aspirations?

On the one hand, the episode allows Pawlenty a platform to boast about his fiscal conservatism and tell the Republican legislature in his home state not to shirk its fight from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. And he could use the attention to breathe life into a campaign that some say is struggling.

On the other, it recalls another state government shutdown that occurred on Pawlenty’s watch – after which he enacted a cigarette “fee” (a.k.a. tax) – and, more importantly, will call into question the financial condition in which he left his state when he left office in January.

Seeking to either harness the potential political gain and/or get out ahead of the attacks, Pawlenty held an impromptu press conference at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport Thursday evening, in which he compared Minnesota’s problems to the country’s fiscal issues.

“Both in Washington, D.C. and in St. Paul, the Democrats continue their thirst for more spending and more taxes,” he said. “And that’s not the right direction for Minnesota, and it’s not the right direction for our country.”

Pawlenty was also asked, though, about the situation he left the state in earlier this year, with a budget shortfall that has been estimated at $5 to 6 billion.

Dayton’s and the legislature’s inability to close that gap is making Minnesota the first state government to shut down since Pennsylvania in 2007. The shutdown that Pawlenty oversaw occurred in 2005.

“Both in ‘05 and now, you had Democrats demanding that we raise taxes and raise spending,” Pawlenty said Thursday. “And that’s not what the people in this country need.”

The knock on Pawlenty’s record is that, in order to balance budgets during his time in office, he pulled all sorts of budget tricks, many of which essentially passed the buck and would have to be addressed in future years.

One of those methods was passing a cigarette “fee” that critics derided as essentially a tax. Despite a fiscal record that conservatives generally applaud, the “fee” is often seen as a black mark against the governor in the GOP presidential primary.

But the bigger issue is how Pawlenty’s fiscal stewardship affected future state budgets. It’s not uncommon for a governor to postpone obligations to future administrations, but the key is a matter of degree.

Hamline University professor David Schultz said Pawlenty entered office with a $4 billion deficit and left with a $5 to 6 billion deficit — one of the biggest in the country — and that could open the 2012 GOP presidential contender up to attacks.

“Right now it doesn’t have any effect on Pawlenty,” Schultz said. “If Democrats can figure out how to tie it back to Pawlenty, then it can work.”

Democrats are already taking their shots, with both the Democratic National Committee and the newly-created American Bridge super PAC pointing to Pawlenty as the cause of the financial pickle in which Minneosta currently finds itself.

“Tim Pawlenty’s disastrous record in Minnesota is continuing to dog him even months after he left office – but worse is how his failed leadership on the budget and the economy is hurting Minnesotans today,” slammed DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse.

The state of the economy that Pawlenty left behind has already been the subject of some debate in his campaign.

Pawlenty was asked about the projected Minnesota deficit during a May debate in South Carolina, and he ascribed it to too much spending. “The idea that I left a deficit is just wrong,” he insisted

According to a Los Angeles Times piece from April, Pawlenty balanced the budget by using the federal stimulus and “one-time fixes” that included delaying obligations and forcing local governments to come up with more money (often by raising property taxes).

Pawlenty blames a Democratic legislature for not enacting permanent budget cuts that would reduce the deficit on a long-term basis. Because of this, his campaign argues, he had to employ extra short-term methods.

As with everything in politics, both sides have their arguments, and people who are inclined to believe Pawlenty will generally do so, while those who are inclined not to believe him probably won’t.

As for those in the middle, it’s probably going to be a matter of whether his Republican primary opponents decide to exploit the issue, and how long this Minnesota crisis continues.

While none of his GOP foes were criticizing him publicly on Friday, some rival strategists argued the issue could become a problem for a candidacy that is already failing to launch.

“He’s already playing defense over money and backbone, now he’s also playing defense about his bio,” said a strategist for a GOP primary opponent.

If his foes do attack, there is plenty of material to work with. The L.A. Times piece pointed out that the Minnesota deficit was the second-biggest in the country, behind California. That’s a pretty powerful statistic.

In the end, it’s going to be about who has the best message.

Pawlenty could come out of this a stronger candidate or a weakened one. But given that he hasn’t really caught on yet, the attention alone could be beneficial for him.

“We feel really good about the governor’s record, really good about the governor’s positon, and really good that the nation’s about to learn more,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant.

If Pawlenty emerges looking like the conservative crusader who balanced the budget with a Democratic legislature in a historically Democratic state, then he wins.

If he looks like a guy who did things for political expediency and is causing massive problems for his state after leaving office, then he loses.

But connecting those dots is not an easy task for Pawlenty’s opponents.

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