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How Not to Run for Vice President

Sen. John McCain and Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota last year.
Sen. John McCain and Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota last year. (By Craig Lassig -- Associated Press)

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, carefully prepared his plan for controlling greenhouse gas emissions to present it at the annual winter meeting of governors in Washington. That effort coincided with Pawlenty's fast-rising prospects to become Sen. John McCain's choice for vice president. But behind closed doors, governors from energy-producing states complained so vigorously that Pawlenty's proposal was buried.

Pawlenty's position as chairman of the National Governors Association may prove to be his undoing. While party insiders sing his praises as ideal to be McCain's running mate, leading conservative Republican governors have been less than pleased with him. Pawlenty has collaborated with the association's Democratic vice chairman, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, on a fat economic stimulus package as well as the energy proposal.

Hours after Pawlenty's energy plan was derailed, McCain himself was privately urged by GOP governors not to appear to be anti-coal or anti-oil. The upshot of a busy Saturday at the J.W. Marriott Hotel downtown was that Pawlenty came across as somebody considerably different from what McCain needs to calm conservatives. He left the nation's capital as a less attractive vice presidential possibility than he was when he arrived.

Pawlenty, 47, has long been talked about as a good fit for the 71-year-old McCain. He is the most conservative Minnesota governor since Theodore "Tightwad Ted" Christianson in the 1920s. Elected to two terms (albeit narrowly) in a slightly blue state, Pawlenty is seen by supporters as a plus for McCain in the Democratic Upper Midwest if added to the ticket.

He gets high grades from conservative fanciers of Republican horse flesh, such as Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and Pawlenty's fellow Minnesotan, Vin Weber. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist approves of Pawlenty's record, save for one hike in cigarette taxes. The censorious Cato Institute gave him a C for fiscal responsibility in his first term (compared with its grade of F for Mike Huckabee of Arkansas).

Pawlenty has largely avoided the fate of other Republicans who were elected governor on a conservative platform and then fell prey in office to the lure of spending projects and concomitant tax increases. But he has become entwined in the National Governors Association's buddy system by serving as its chairman. That allied him with Rendell and put him at odds with conservative Republicans. Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Mark Sanford of South Carolina were not happy when Pawlenty and Rendell proposed an NGA-sponsored sweetening of the Bush administration's stimulus package of $6 billion in federal Medicaid funding and $6 billion in flexible block grants.

As co-chairman of the association's energy committee (with Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who gave the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union address this year), Pawlenty proposed state goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But at a "governors-only" session that opened the meeting on Saturday, Pawlenty encountered adamant opposition. Barbour led the way for governors from energy-producing states, including Republican Rick Perry of Texas and Democrat Steve Beshear of Kentucky. The issue of greenhouse gases was "set aside," Pawlenty told me, "because we realized there was no consensus."

McCain, who has co-sponsored a global warming bill with his friend and supporter Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), got more of the same over dinner with Republican governors that night. They made clear that energy was a major issue and that they hoped McCain would be sensitive to energy producers. By all accounts, the prospective presidential nominee was receptive.

That same day, the Wall Street Journal ran a column by Minneapolis-St. Paul talk show host Jason Lewis critiquing Pawlenty's record -- including renewable energy mandates -- as too liberal for him to be McCain's vice president. "If you look at my record as a whole," Pawlenty told me Sunday, "I would be astonished if I was not considered conservative." As for Lewis's remarks, "He doesn't think I'm conservative because I'm a proponent of clean energy, and, from my standpoint, we've got a national security issue."

"We loved Ronald Reagan, but he made some compromises along the way," Pawlenty said, adding, "We don't have a big enough party to be throwing people overboard." Presumably, that also means coal and oil interests.

¿ 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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