Outspoken Pawlenty Auditions for Role of Mr. Discretion

Minnesota's governor performs for the National Press Club.
Minnesota's governor performs for the National Press Club. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tim Pawlenty is an uncommonly forthright man.

The Minnesota governor, who aspires to be John McCain's vice president, said during a radio interview in the spring that his wife enjoys fishing, football and hockey. "Now," Pawlenty quipped, "if I could only get her to have sex with me."

Three months after that public pillow talk, Pawlenty is showing similar openness as he campaigns actively, if unofficially, to be McCain's mate. The governor, a regular on the supposed short list of Republican vice presidential prospects, gave a pair of speeches in Washington yesterday -- one to the GOPAC gathering of Republicans and another to the National Press Club -- that amounted to a public audition for a chance to take up residency at the Naval Observatory.

Pawlenty advertised himself as a conservative: "I loved Ronald Reagan." He flaunted his youthful 47 years: "I came of age when he was president, running for president." He displayed his foreign policy credentials: "I've been to Iraq three times." He established his economic bona fides: "We closed some big budget deficits."

He even presented a ready-to-wear slogan for McCain, as catchy and populist as John Edwards's "two Americas." "We have to be the party of Sam's Club Republicans, not just country club Republicans," the would-be No. 2 said over the clink of silver on china at the press club.

All in all, a strong audition -- and it had to be to keep up with his rivals. With vice presidential announcements by McCain and Barack Obama just weeks, if not days, away, Republican and Democratic aspirants are aggressively marketing themselves before the television cameras this week.

Tom Daschle, a possible Obama pick, was vending his wares at least twice in the past week on CNN. Another aspiring Obama mate, Bill Richardson, has been presenting his credentials ("in the year 2000, when I was energy secretary . . .") on CNN, Fox and MSNBC this week. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a possible McCain partner, was on Fox. Meanwhile, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, an Obama hopeful, and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a McCain suitor, did joint auditions on both MSNBC and CNN yesterday. They debated energy policy and deflected questions about the real reason they were there. "It's good for my ego, but probably not much else," said Bayh.

"I can't talk about that process," said Crist.

"We're rooting for both of you," said MSNBC's Joe Scarborough.

But nobody has kept pace with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a McCain VP hopeful, who has made no fewer than five broadcast appearances in three days, repeatedly describing Obama as "an Internet date." As for his own ambitions? "I don't expect to be a member of the ticket." Not that he'd mind, of course.

That left Pawlenty with a lot of catching up to do as he arrived for an early-morning speech to GOPAC. He mentioned not only his relative youth and his affection for Reagan, but also his concern that Republican ideas have become "a little stagnant." And he established himself as an above-the-fray choice for McCain as he praised Obama: "Say what you will about Barack Obama, people gravitate when you have something positive to say."

The governor used his downtime after the morning speech to add to his recent round of media interviews. Then he was back on stage at lunchtime, opening his speech to the press club with a tease about the VP selection process. "One of the questions that inevitability will come is, 'When will the decision be made? Who will he pick?' " Pawlenty said. "And I just want to address that right off the top. I don't have any particular insights as to where Brett Favre is going to play next year."

Pawlenty's style was conversational and fluid, but not captivating. His theme, the "Sam's Club Republicans," was just another way of talking about Reagan Democrats. Many of his solutions ("school choice") were Republican boilerplate, and his recommendations -- be "pragmatic," and "ideas matter" -- were often trite.

But he made up for that with his generous show of loyalty toward his would-be boss. Iraq? "The surge has worked. I agree with Senator McCain." McCain's recent turn to negative campaigning? "Unavoidable." McCain's ad likening Obama to Paris Hilton? "A legitimate line of inquiry." McCain's life experiences? "Epic. They are legendary."

Pawlenty performed his audition using the language of the PowerPoint presentation. "We are the party of markets," he explained, going on to discuss voters as "our potential customers," the 2006 "loss of market share," and a "more effective government at a better price," and, inevitably, the use of "benchmarks."

As a bonus, Pawlenty checked another box on the McCain VP requirement list: distance from President Bush. He praised "compassionate conservatism" but added: "That has to be more than just a label." Indirectly, he also scolded Bush for Republicans' "slow" awakening to conservation and their ideological "doldrums."

He got tripped up a bit when asked to square his Sam's Club idea with the "evangelicals and the neoconservatives [who] took over the GOP."

"The metaphor only goes so far," he conceded. But he recovered in time to answer a question about the most important qualities in a prospective vice presidential candidate. "Discretion," Pawlenty said. The audition was over.

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