(Brian Frank/Reuters)

Critics say Pawlenty used accounting shortcuts, like postponing spending and accelerating revenue collection, to balance budgets. Today, Minnesota is struggling with a projected budget deficit of $5 billion, which some blame on Pawlenty. “I don’t think any governor has left behind a worse financial mess than he has,” says Arne Carlson, a Republican who was Minnesota’s governor from 1991 to 1999. Not my fault, Pawlenty replies, blaming the recession, Democratic spending habits and a state supreme court ruling that restored $2.7 billion he’d slashed from the budget by fiat in 2009. (The ruling, written by a chief justice whom Pawlenty appointed, found that the unilateral cut had exceeded the governor’s authority.) But he tends not to mention the help he got from nonconservative sources — including more than $2 billion from an Obama stimulus bill that he has trashed as “largely wasted” and a 75 cents cigarette-tax hike he swallowed to end that 2005 budget shutdown.

When you read this next paragraph, keep in mind that Pawlenty titled his autobiography “The Courage to Stand”:

Pawlenty will also have to explain to conservatives his stint of activism on global warming, which in 2007 he called “one of the most important [issues] of our time.” He signed bills promoting clean energy and a cap-and-trade system of carbon limits similar to the model envisioned by Obama. He toured the state with the Minnesota-based Arctic explorer Will Steger to “convince the skeptics,” as he put it, and even considered visiting the Arctic. He made a 2008 radio ad urging Congress to “cap greenhouse-gas pollution now!” But he now takes it all back, saying the human impact on climate change is unproven. “It was a mistake, and I’m sorry,” Pawlenty said in a May 6 Fox News debate, leaving it to others to judge whether his mind was changed by the science or by growing skepticism among Republicans.

Courageous! And as for his success getting elected in a blue state:

For Pawlenty, these blemishes are less important than his professed ability to win in places where other Republicans cannot. “I got elected and re-elected in a blue state as a movement conservative,” Pawlenty told me, adding that he could tilt states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Florida back into the red. This too oversimplifies the record. Pawlenty was no electoral Kirby Puckett. He won both his statewide races with less than 50% of the vote. He was barely re-elected, by 21,000 votes, in 2006. In each race, the presence of a third-party candidate likely fractured the state’s mostly Democratic voters to his advantage. “I’m quite confident that Pawlenty would not have been elected if it was a straight-up vote between a Democrat and a Republican,” says the University of Minnesota’s [Prof. Lawrence] Jacobs. Last fall, Pawlenty’s handpicked GOP successor, for whom he campaigned, was defeated. And at least one recent poll has shown Pawlenty running behind Obama in the state, calling into question whether he could really deliver Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes to the GOP next November.

“What I don’t understand is why the party elites have so little enthusiasm for Tim Pawlenty,” wrote Jon Chait. Perhaps this helps explain it: Pawlenty’s record isn’t so good that he has either a preexisting core of admirers in the Republican Party or a story that conservative elites are finding plausible under scrutiny.