By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is widely regarded as one of the Republican Party's rising national leaders. The runner-up to Sarah Palin to be John McCain's vice presidential running mate, he is a conservative whose blue-collar roots, amiable personality and two terms as governor of a traditionally Democratic state would seem to make him a natural in attracting the kind of swing voters who are always fought over in presidential elections.
But the Pawlenty who has stepped onto the national stage in recent months has said and done things that have other Republicans wondering about his instincts and his sure-footedness as a prospective 2012 presidential candidate. Pawlenty could learn from the earlier mistakes of one of his potential rivals for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Last week, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, Pawlenty was asked repeatedly whether he welcomed Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to vote for the Senate Finance Committee's health-care bill, in the GOP. At a time when some conservatives are insisting on purity within the ranks and others say the party must truly be a big tent, Pawlenty ducked the question. He hemmed and hawed, but couldn't bring himself to say yes -- suggesting that he believed no.
He now calls his responses "an unforced error" and an "inartfully" stated answer. Of course he meant yes, he now insists. "While we don't agree on everything, of course she is welcome in the party," he said in a telephone interview. "That's what I should have said."
His effort to quickly clean up the mess, which included a call to Snowe, helped to make amends. But the misstep was not the first questionable decision by Pawlenty.
In September, he jumped into the controversy over President Obama's speech to schoolchildren, questioning the wisdom of the address in a way that provided some cover to those who claimed that the presidential talk was an overtly political move designed to indoctrinate young people.
In another interview on MSNBC, Pawlenty appeared reluctant to get on the wrong side of those who claimed that there were "death panels" in some versions of the health-care legislation on Capitol Hill. He eventually acknowledged that there were no such panels but said the concerns of those who believed so were justifiable.
On the environment, Politifact.com concluded that he has flip-flopped on climate-change legislation, which he now opposes.
Most recently, Pawlenty endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd congressional district, but he acted only after Palin had turned the special election into an intraparty test of strength.
Pawlenty said there is no deliberate effort to move to the right. "In general, I've governed as a conservative in Minnesota, so being conservative isn't like a new development or a revelation," he said.
He said he raised doubts about Obama's speech to schoolchildren because "I was just echoing what a well-regarded, nonpartisan group of educators [the Minnesota Association of School Boards] was saying." In the New York race, he said, he objected to the fact that Scozzafava was hand-picked by local leaders. He also said he concluded that her views put her far outside the mainstream of Republican doctrine.
"There is certainly room in the party and room in the movement for all kinds of ideas and principles and issue positions," he said, "but in general we have to be rowing in the same direction as a team, and I don't think she met that standard."
Pawlenty, who has never been known as a red-meat political orator, acknowledged that he has been particularly rough in his criticism of Obama this year but offered no regrets on that front. "I don't think this is a time to mince words," he said.
Pawlenty earlier decided not to seek a third term as governor. He has established a political action committee and assembled a team of advisers who are among the best in the party, with roots in Iowa, an understanding of new technology, and a breadth of knowledge on the intersection of politics and policy.
The question is whether he and his team have been spooked by the influence of the most conservative wing of his party in presidential nominating politics. His advisers said no. "These are all unique circumstances in time, and they don't represent a strategic or calibrated effort to move to the right," one adviser said.
Still, there is something Romney-esque in all this. Four years ago, Romney lurched to the right in preparation for his presidential candidacy. He did it on social issues, where his prior support for abortion and gay rights left him vulnerable on his right flank. Pawlenty has a consistent record of opposition to abortion and gay marriage. In his case, he appears to be catering to the populist anger on the right, which is challenging the party establishment and attacking Obama in sometimes extreme language.
The real risk for Pawlenty, as Romney learned in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign, is losing his true voice and his authenticity. Once a candidate starts down that road, it can be hard to pull back.
This year, Romney has generally kept a lower profile. The view among strategists is that Romney has been shrewd in staying out of these flare-ups and trying to focus on big-picture issues. Pawlenty, being less known nationally and looking to attract attention to himself, has been reluctant to stay quiet.
The question is, with that need to raise his own profile, whether Pawlenty can prepare for a possible presidential campaign without sacrificing the best qualities that brought him to this point in his career.