Walker, you see, has the unfortunate distinction of running four years after another upper-Midwestern GOP governor flamed out early in the GOP primary. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, it seemed, was too Midwestern even for Iowa. The likeliest challenger to Mitt Romney's front-runner status — on paper at least — underperformed in the Iowa Straw Poll and was out of the race well before the caucuses started the official voting.
So the Walker-Pawlenty comparisons were inevitable.
"When some have talked about Walker, they unfavorably compare him to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, another nice, neighborly Republican who was considered too tepid," wrote Slate's John Dickerson last week.
Bloomberg declared this week: "If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker runs for president, he should take a good hard look at the styling of another Midwestern governor, Tim Pawlenty, and what doomed that candidacy in 2012."
And on Wednesday, conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg — while not mentioning Pawlenty — declared Walker the "vanilla candidate" (albeit in a good way).
Likening two candidates because of geography, of course, isn't completely fair. But I subscribe to the idea that there is such a thing as being too Midwestern to be president. Candidates in this 24/7 media age quite simply need to be compelling. Call it the "charisma threshold."
As a fellow Minnesotan, when I saw Pawlenty telling corny jokes and looking exceedingly Midwestern milquetoast in the 2012 campaign, I wondered how he would excite anybody enough to assert himself as a front-runner. A president needs to be seen as forceful and decisive; as Garrison Keillor will point out, being upper-Midwestern is often antithetical to that.
And this turned out to be somewhat right in Pawlenty's case. But one candidate is an exceedingly small sample size from which to draw broad conclusions. And there are plenty of reasons to believe Walker is different.
1) His speech
Not to overemphasize one speech — before the campaign even begins — but the fact that Walker is even capable of emerging from the Iowa Freedom Summit, which featured many other conservative favorites up to and including Sen. Ted Cruz, as the buzziest candidate says something about his potential.
Pawlenty simply never demonstrated that kind of potential. Indeed, the dramatic, movie-trailer-like videos his campaign produced were so far removed from the reality of their candidate, it was almost distracting.
If nothing else, Walker's performance shows he has it in him.
2) Walker has a message
The conventional wisdom had it that Pawlenty's problem was that he was supposed to go after Romney and, when given a golden opportunity, clammed up and took a pass. That might have been the final straw, but more than anything, it was symptomatic of a candidate who never found his message. If it wasn't the anti-Romney, anti-Romneycare campaign, what was it? Two-term governor of a blue-leaning state? A guy with blue-collar roots from South St. Paul? Those are helpful, but they aren't central themes.
Walker doesn't have that problem. And in fact, he has a pretty good narrative. He beat Democrats three times in four years in a blue-leaning state. He went after the unions, and the unions came after him in a recall election — and lost. And he can credibly claim to being something different than the other candidates.
"He's the antithesis of President Obama: an accomplished executive, substance-over-style and a genuine reputation as a reformer," GOP strategist Kevin Madden said. "Each candidate is unique and competes in a unique environment from other elections, so I wouldn't compare the fates of other candidates as a perfect template."
A big reason Pawlenty's campaign ended after the straw poll — in addition to the abovementioned reasons — was because it simply didn't have the money to continue. As Washington Post's Matea Gold notes in her Walker profile on Wednesday, that's less of a hurdle for Walker, who is on the verge of a surprisingly potent 50-state network.
Pawlenty is clearly envious.
“He has something I didn't have. Because of the recall and his good work in Wisconsin, he’s got one of the largest direct mail and Internet donor bases in the country, and very established relationships with major donors," Pawlenty said. "That’s going to allow him to raise a competitive amount of money to ride out the inevitable highs and lows of the campaign.”
Walker is still going to be less dynamic than Cruz and Gov. Chris Christie and perhaps more aw-shucks than former governor Jeb Bush and Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. But it's hard to caricature him as a boring candidate with little reason for people to get excited about him.
He should be able to clear that charisma threshold, according to Pawlenty himself.
"You can’t be boring, but you also can’t be a cartoon character," Pawlenty told Bloomberg. "And Scott’s got the right mix in between those two things.”