By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; A23
On paper, Tim Pawlenty may be the most formidable Republican challenger to President Obama in 2012. Too bad he's running as somebody else.
At this week's first cattle call of the GOP presidential primary, hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, masqueraded as a local guy on a first-name basis with the group's president, Steve Scheffler. Except Pawlenty thrice called him "Chuck," as in, "I want to thank Chuck," and "Chuck spoke about it today."
Informed of his mistake after the speech, Pawlenty returned to the microphone. "There's a Chuck Scheffler in Minnesota," he explained.
Anybody can botch a name, of course, but Pawlenty's problem is more substantive: As he prepares to seek the presidential nomination, Pawlenty seems to have botched his entire persona.
He's an attractive candidate because he was twice elected governor in Democratic-leaning Minnesota. He did this by appealing to the economic concerns of the working class - "Sam's Club Republicans," he calls them - and by declining to wear his deeply conservative social views (he's an evangelical Christian) on his sleeve.
But now Pawlenty is campaigning as if he's some sort of Southern preacher. At the Faith & Freedom event, he was dropping g's all over the place, using "ain't" instead of "isn't," and adding a syrup to his vowels not indigenous to Minnesota. He didn't utter the word "jobs," made only passing reference to economic woes, and instead gave the assembled religious conservatives a fiery speech about God, gays and gynecology.
"We have people in Washington, D.C., who believe the unborn do not have a right to life," he roared. "Yes, they do! We have people in Washington, D.C., who say marriage will be defined however we feel like defining it. No, it won't!" His central theme: "We need to be a country that turns toward God, not a country that turns away from God."
There has been much handwringing among Republicans in recent weeks about the lack of a strong candidate in the GOP presidential field. But the problem may be less the messenger than the message.
In 2010, Republicans harnessed anger at Obama for his perceived overreaching, particularly on health care. But that theme has been blunted: Now in power, Republicans such as Scott Walker have demonstrated that they are every bit as capable of overreach. Likewise, the Republicans' economic message is beginning to atrophy as private-sector job growth improves and the new House Republican majority struggles to focus on the economy.
Instead, the religious conservatives who dominate primaries are pulling Republicans back toward themes such as abortion and gay rights. The Tea Party is morphing from an economic movement into a conventional moral crusade.
That pivot was best articulated by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in his speech at the Faith & Freedom event. "It's not the economy," he told the crowd, warning about gay marriage. "If we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually," he said to applause.
A similar message was offered by Rick Santorum, another presidential hopeful. "Everyone wants to talk about the economy, and it's important," he said. "But what's the mission? What's the what-for?" Santorum's what-for was abortion. "Any child born prematurely, according to the president, in his own words, can be killed," Santorum alleged.
The group's chairman, Ralph Reed (formerly of the Christian Coalition), told the crowd that if the government violated the people's God-given rights, "it was our duty and moral obligation to replace that government, by force if necessary." Even aspiring candidates Newt Gingrich and Buddy Roemer, who between them have had six wives, spoke about moral values.
Pawlenty talked about prayer in Lyndon Johnson's White House, discussed Ronald Reagan's Bible, read a passage from Second Chronicles and addressed the piety of the Founders - all before any mention of the federal debt. He didn't tarry long on what should be the main focus of his candidacy - "the conservative governor of the state of McCarthy, Mondale, Humphrey, Wellstone and now United States Senator Al Franken" - before things went South.
"This ain't about easy; this is about rolling up our sleeves and plowing ahead and getting the job done," he said, pronouncing "getting" as "git-ing." "We, the people of the United States, will rise up again." "United" became "yew-nah-ted" and "again" became "a-gin." Perhaps he thought he was in South Carolina (Pawlenty pronounced it "care-lahna") as he spoke about the other "kinds (kahns) of things" he's done.
If they want to beat Obama, Republicans should hope Pawlenty finds his authentic voice.