Tim Pawlenty went on the air last night with Sean Hannity. He smartly avoided wading into Donald Trump’s birther swamps and instead showed himself to be fluid on both foreign policy and the economy:

Most interestingly, he identified both his biography (“I grew up in a blue-collar background, in a meat-packing town”) and gubernatorial record as ways to distinguish himself from the rest of the field, but put particular emphasis on his ability to “unite not just the conservative movement but the party.”

And that may be his ticket to the top of the pack. Aside from the flaws that will weigh down his competitors, Pawlenty has another key advantage. He has staked out a message that plainly is not trying to subdivide the electorate. Unlike Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, he hasn’t spurned social conservatives. Unlike Mitt Romney, he hasn’t turned off limited-government advocates (by support of an individual-mandate health care reform plan). And unlike Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Pawlenty isn’t playing the isolationist card.

Whether that is enough to win the nomination remains to be seen. However, whoever does win the nomination better be able to unite not only all the factions within the GOP but also those independents and Democrats who have had enough of President Obama. In that regard, it might be wise for each 2012 aspirant to make the case that he or she is a solid conservative but not an off-putting one. That means squelch the conspiracy talk, avoid ad hominem attacks (independents don’t like those) and focus on themes that appeal to the center-right coalition that turned out in droves for Republicans in 2010.