Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have two things in common: they both call Minnesota home and they both need to win the Iowa presidential caucuses next February. And that’s about it.
While Pawlenty was a two-term governor that emphasized Sam’s Club Republicanism — code for expanding the GOP brand to include more working-class voters who care about the economy — Bachmann has been a partisan bomb-thrower in Congress and the state legislature, irritating even her own party because of her decidedly conservative politics.
Those close to Minnesota Republican politics say the cordial-but-not-close relationship has defined the two 2012 presidential candidates, and stems from the very different path the pair have taken to their current situations.
Pawlenty jumped into politics early in life, getting elected to the city council at 28-years-old, rising to state legislator, two-term governor and now, presidential candidate. (A team player, Pawlenty also bowed out of the 2002 Senate race against then-Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone at the urging of the Bush White House.)
Bachmann, meanwhile, was an activist first, a politician second. She lost her first run for elective office — the school board — when she was in her 40s, and was first elected to the Minnesota state Senate less than a decade ago.
Bachmann was occasionally an actual impediment to Pawlenty — for instance, when she tried to thwart a 75-cent cigarette fee he proposed to close a budget deficit. But most of the time, she has simply been someone about whom curious reporters asked the governor.
Without fail, Pawlenty’s canned response was to praise Bachmann personally without embracing her politics.
While Pawlenty followed the paint-by-numbers approach to his political career, Bachmann built her network without the help of the party establishment, and so she has rarely needed to craft bonds with politicians like Pawlenty.
“They come from different camps of politics, and I think that makes them a little suspicious of each other,” said one Minnesota GOP insider.
That suspicion has now bubbled over into rivalry, and given the very different worlds the two come from, there is little holding them back from engaging politically.
So far, Bachmann has the upper hand. A poll conducted last month and released Monday showed Bachmann in first place at 25 percent and Pawlenty at nine percent.
With his campaign struggling to catch on, Pawlenty on Sunday took aim at the congresswoman.
“I like Congresswoman Bachmann, I’ve campaigned for her, I respect her,” Pawlenty said. “But her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent. It’s non-existent. And so we’re not looking for folks who, you know, just have speech capabilities. We’re looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to a conclusion. I’ve done that; she hasn’t.”
That critique amounts to a significant expansion on Pawlenty’s previous comments about Bachmann, in which he lauded her as a smart politician and praised her as a candidate who inspires other Republicans.
Bachmann has hardly been a bystander in this war of words, although her attacks have generally been more muted.
In a statement late Sunday, Bachmann did not mention Pawlenty by name but appeared to draw a contrast with him on the individual mandate and cap-and-trade, both areas where Pawlenty’s past statements may come back to haunt him with GOP voters.
“Instead of negativity, I want to focus on my accomplishments,” Bachmann said.
But the tea-party leader has also hit Pawlenty’s record more directly last month, suggesting that the former governor’s past statement of support for an individual mandate may cost him in the presidential race.
“We need to have people who have enough foresight and common sense to know these programs aren’t going to work. I’m that kind of person,” she said.