Minn.'s Pawlenty: A contender to reshape GOP's 2012 image

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 2:55 PM

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has little of the star power of Sarah Palin. He has not been around the presidential track in the way of Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. He does not have the political network of Haley Barbour. He is not a provocateur of ideas like Newt Gingrich.

None of that seems to bother him as he weighs whether to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He thinks he has something others don't have, which is the capacity to help put a more appealing face on a party that still suffers from image problems with many voters.

Pawlenty, just back from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, was in Washington on Monday for a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Most of the hour-long discussion centered on his views about the wars, financial regulatory reform, health care, deficits and spending and taxes, and immigration.

(The Fix: Tim Pawlenty doubles down on Afghanistan)

On all those questions, he hewed to a firmly conservative line. He argued strongly for a stay-the-course policy in Afghanistan. He opposed President Obama's July 2011 deadline for the start of a drawdown of forces and said more troops might even be necessary to assure eventual success.

"If we're serious about what this means in terms of terrorism, if we're serious about that it means in terms of the threat to the United States of American and our national security interests, then we need to be serious about seeing it through to the point that we're satisfied that our objectives have been met," he said.

On fiscal issues, he said the administration has spent too much for too little on the economy and that, if Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress this fall and the president's debt and deficit commission then offers recommendations that include any new taxes, "it's going to be a non-starter."

He called the new health-care law misguided and said he and most Republicans still want to repeal it and replace it with something else. He said Arizona's new immigration law has been "wildly and irresponsibly and recklessly mischaracterized" by government officials including the president.

There were no surprises in the positions he expressed. Nothing to suggest he will offer the country a different conservative vision if he runs for president. If anything, he demonstrated the degree to which Republicans have unified around a message of opposition to the Obama agenda and that deviation from that line will not be welcomed in the 2012 sweepstakes.

But Pawlenty also said that issues will not be all that decisive in that competition. "There will be general agreement as to the content of the message," he continued, "but the real question's going to be as to tone and face and credibility, who is best situated to open the door to people who are not yet Republicans to say we understand what you're going through, and we can make a connection to you in ways that have some credibility."

Pawlenty argued that, after the November elections, the Republicans would have a new, younger and more diverse set of leaders to present to the country. He cited South Carolina's Nikki Haley, favored to win the governor's race there and become the first Indian American woman to lead her state. She would join another Indian American, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, as part of the party's new leadership.

(Campaign 2010: Congressional & Governors races)

He mentioned California, where voters could elect former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman as governor and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina as senator and give the GOP a new beachhead in the nation's most populous state. He pointed to the Southwest, where voters could elect Latino Republicans as governor in New Mexico (Susana Martinez) and Nevada (Brian Sandoval).

"There's going to be six or eight next-generation folks who are not middle-aged, white-guy CEOs," he said. "So it's going to be a new day, a new era in terms of the face and voice and tone of the Republican Party."

Pawlenty is, of course, one more white guy in the constellation of prospective GOP presidential candidates, with Palin the lone exception. But life story, he said, can help him overcome the advantages that his likely rivals may enjoy at the start of the race.

"What do people think about when they think about Republicans?" he asked. "What's the stereotype? We're all CEOs. We're the sons or daughters of CEOs. We play polo on the weekends. We never got our fingernails dirty. We drink Chablis and eat brie. That's not my story, and it's not the story for the tea party, and it's not the story for most Republicans."

And then he repeated the highlights of a biography that he has been taking to Republican gatherings in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere all year and that will be front-and-center next year should he become a candidate: He grew up in a meatpacking town. His mother died when he was 16. His father drove a truck for much of his life. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.

The voters that Republicans need to win in 2012, Pawlenty said, care less about seven-point plans for health-care reform. What they want is to know that those running for president understand their lives, their challenges, their values and their worries. To gain voters' trust, he added, candidates would need to connect with them at a gut and heart level.

"So when they say, 'You don't understand me, you're all country club elitists,' it helps to have a messenger that has walked in their shoes a bit because then you can at least open the door to a discussion and get you some credibility," he said.

Pawlenty is a retiring two-term governor of a generally Democratic state from a region of the country that is always at the center of deciding who becomes president. But he would start the race far down in GOP pack. He may be overlooked or ignored as bigger names draw the media's attention. He will face challenges in raising money to compete with those who have big purses.

Whether he can elbow his way into the thick of the competition is the question others in the party are now asking. Pawlenty says that when the time comes, there will be an audience there to listen.

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