Dana Milbank
Opinion writer January 23, 2012

During his brief and ill-fated presidential bid, Tim Pawlenty pursued the role of attack dog about as well as you would expect a golden retriever to do.

The former Minnesota governor was just too cuddly. When he fleetingly referred to rival Mitt Romney’s “ObamneyCare” health legislation, he was invited to repeat the accusation to Romney’s face during a debate — and he awkwardly demurred.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Belatedly, Pawlenty has found his venom sac. And on Monday morning, he poured it on Newt Gingrich during a conference call with reporters.

“For Republicans and conservatives all across this country, a question is going to have to be as they consider Newt Gingrich as a potential nominee for president: Really? I mean, really?”

Pawlenty went on to dub Gingrich a lobbyist and “influence peddler” and demanded that he release his client list and contract with the mortgage provider Freddie Mac.

“The notion that he was paid $1.7 million as a historian for Freddie Mac is just BS,” he added. “I mean, it’s just nonsense.”

“Gingrich,” Pawlenty informed the reporters, “has spent almost his entire adult life either as a member of the Congress or as somebody who has been an influence peddler. . . . To suggest that he’s the outsider simply defies the facts.”

It was a solid political punch. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, it was too late for his own presidential ambitions; he was holding the teleconference as a surrogate for Romney as his former foe fends off Gingrich. But if Pawlenty performs well, he may be rewarded with a more formal attack-dog role: Romney’s running mate.

Pawlenty has proved to be far feistier in defending Romney than he was in promoting his own candidacy. He has been working the crowds in the “spin room” after debates, giving TV interviews and making campaign appearances to boost Romney, and now doing the dirty work of the attack teleconference.

“Good morning, everyone!” Pawlenty opened cheerfully. Before he began, the reporters on the call had been listening to the soothing tones of Pachelbel’s Canon.

But within seconds, the truck driver’s son with the aw-shucks manner was ripping into Gingrich’s “incredibly unfortunate and questionable activities” and calling him “not somebody that I think can carry the banner for the Republican Party and the conservative movement forward as a nominee or as a future president.”

Pawlenty offered his theory that “Newt Gingrich being our nominee against Barack Obama I think is essentially handing the election over to Obama, if it got to that point.”

Gingrich is an especially fat target for Pawlenty’s contempt. He largely pioneered the modern era of assault politics, and lately he has been using his signature style to undermine Romney’s electability by characterizing him as a heartless corporate raider.

Romney, suddenly in jeopardy of losing a nomination that was his to lose, has begun to respond in kind.

“While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in,” says the narrator of a new Romney ad in Florida.

Romney said Monday that Gingrich may have been involved in “potentially wrongful activity of some kind.”

And Pawlenty, in his teleconference, added to the innuendo.

“Gingrich has represented hundreds of clients and interest groups,” he charged, “in many cases for huge sums of money. To say that he wasn’t a lobbyist is an incredible hairsplitting.”

Pawlenty had truth on his side: Gingrich’s work after leaving the House speakership was lobbying in every sense but the technical one. But Pawlenty’s task was more than to remind the reporters of what they already knew. He was also attempting to take the controversy over Romney’s hesitancy to release his tax returns (he finally has said he will do so on Tuesday) and replace it with Gingrich’s failure to release his list of lobbying clients and the details of his contract with Freddie Mac.

“Who did he lobby or what advocacy positions did he take?” Pawlenty demanded. “Let’s have a look.”

“You talk about lobbying as if it’s a bad thing,” a reporter from Politico commented.

Pawlenty, serving a campaign backed heavily by lobbyists, deftly deflected. “When you’re running, as Newt is, as somebody who is saying he’s against the establishment, when in fact he is the establishment,” Pawlenty said, “number one, there’s hypocrisy there, and number two, there needs to be transparency so people can evaluate the candidates.”

Nicely played. Had Pawlenty — a more consistent conservative than Romney, with a better record in office — taken that approach earlier, perhaps Romney would be working for him, instead of the other way around.