Can Tim Pawlenty light a fire with Republicans?

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks in Blaine, Minn.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks in Blaine, Minn. (Craig Lassig - AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 12:23 AM

IN MINNEAPOLIS In this era of outrage-fueled politics, can a nice guy finish first?

Even his adversaries say they can't help but like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who left office on Jan. 1 and is on a book tour, his latest step toward a campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

"A good, decent person - all of those things," said Democrat Roger Moe, who often squared off against Pawlenty back when they were both leaders in the Minnesota Legislature and who unsuccessfully ran against him for governor in 2002.

But there is one thing that gets a rise out of Pawlenty, and that is to suggest that he lacks a certain . . . pizzazz.

"Compared to who?" Pawlenty retorted in an interview. "I'll concede that Sarah Palin is in a league of her own and a force of nature. As to most of the rest in the field? If you get to know me, I don't think that's an accurate rap. I mean, you think about all the other people running. With the possible exception of Mike Huckabee, and Palin, there aren't exactly a bunch of Lady Gagas."

And this might even be the moment for nice. Asked Monday about Palin's now-infamous fundraising appeal that featured cross-hairs symbols, including one on the district of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Pawlenty told the New York Times that he believes it had nothing to do with the subsequent tragedy there. But he also noted pointedly: "I wouldn't have done it."

An 'A' from conservatives

Already, Pawlenty has something of a starry-eyed fan base in conservative circles.

"The successful conservative governor of one of the most liberal states in the union - as if Ronald Reagan had been elected in Sweden," columnist Michael Gerson raved on The Washington Post op-ed page last year.

The tight-fisted, anti-tax Pawlenty was also one of but four governors - and the only one from a Democratic state - whose fiscal record won an "A" grade from the libertarian Cato Institute last fall.

The decades before he took office saw state budgets grow by an average of 21 percent every two years. He brought that to just under 2 percent, and in 2009, he cut real spending for the first time in 150 years. To get there, he used his veto pen nearly 300 times, setting a Minnesota record for the most in one year.

His critics point out, however, that Pawlenty also left behind a projected $6.2 billion deficit for his successor, Democrat Mark Dayton - even bigger than the $4.5 billion shortfall he inherited from his predecessor, independent Jesse Ventura.

Pawlenty also helped reorient politics in a state where party labels never carried the same meaning they did elsewhere, especially for statewide officeholders.

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