Council Bluffs

Standing with his back to a mirror that spans the width of a private dining room at Tish’s Restaurant in this western Iowa town, Tim Pawlenty sought the support of the locals who had come to hear him by making a peculiar pitch: I’m less objectionable than my likely Republican primary opponents.

“Everybody’s got a few clunkers in their record,” Pawlenty says. “I think mine are fewer and less severe than most.”

The argument sounds like a set-up to drive a contrast with the other candidates, but Pawlenty consistently resists that temptation. In an hour-long town hall here on the morning of June 1, Pawlenty shared his thoughts on the debt ceiling, spending, illegal immigration, abortion, health care, jobs, the economy, and several other issues. He holds the views of a mainstream conservative, and he speaks without notes or soaring rhetoric. He is plainspoken and even—not boring exactly, but not exciting, either.

Later, during the question-and-answer session after his opening remarks, Pawlenty once again passes on an opportunity to contrast his positions with his likely competitors’. Instead, he seeks to steer the audience away from policy as a means of evaluating the candidates and toward character and, most important, electability.

“Let me be real blunt with you,” he says. “Every Republican candidate is going to come through a room like this and talk to a group like this and they’re basically going to say the same thing. Every one of them is going to say, ‘I’m for cutting taxes; I’m for reducing spending; I’m for school choice and school accountability and school reform; I’m for market-based, not government-based health care reform; I’m for being tough on terrorism and standing with friends around the world including Israel; I’m for public-employee pension reform.’ ”

With that, Pawlenty launches into his personal story—and spends seven minutes telling it. He’s the son of a truck driver, a boy who lost his mother as a teenager, a scrappy hockey player who worked in the produce section of a grocery store, an ambitious student who worked his way through college, and a public servant who rose through local politics to become governor and now a serious presidential candidate.

And then Pawlenty returns to his electoral appeal. Unlike the other candidates, he ran, governed, and won reelection in a blue state. His blue-collar background would allow him to compete for votes that Republicans don’t usually win.

“The question for you is who can do it, who has the fortitude to do it, and who will sell in blue places and purple places. Everybody’s going to say, ‘I’m the one who can get the independents in the end. I’m the one who can get the conservative Democrats.’ But,” he said, “I’m the one who actually did it.”

It’s an unconventional argument, striking in its emphasis on the personal and political over the philosophical and ideological. At times, Pawlenty sounds more like a strategist than a candidate. Some politicians avoid policy to keep from exposing their lack of depth on the issues. That’s not Pawlenty. He understands policy and can talk about it in great detail.

Does this approach work? For voters who want a contrast to Barack Obama, Pawlenty provides it. For voters who want to beat Obama at his own game, maybe not.

After the town hall, I chatted with Dennis and Sheryl Koch, retired schoolteachers from Council Bluffs. They had seen a notice in the paper that Pawlenty would be speaking and decided to give him a listen. “One of the things I liked was his personal story,” said Dennis, who hadn’t known about Pawlenty’s upbringing before hearing from the candidate.

The Kochs had been leaning towards supporting Mitt Romney, but seeing Pawlenty gave them -second thoughts. “I like Romney,” said Sheryl. “He has experience in business, he has conservative values, he has a great family. I just don’t know if he can be successful a second time around. I was pretty impressed with Pawlenty.”

As we were speaking, a middle-aged wo-man spied my notebook and interrupted us on her way out. “Un-in-spiring!” she said, rolling her eyes as she headed to the door.

Pawlenty was the only candidate in the state late last week. The day after his two-day swing through western Iowa, however, the local news focused on another governor—one who has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to be a -candidate. A group of heavyweight Iowa Republican fundraisers had flown to New Jersey to urge Chris Christie to run for president. Their takeaway from the meeting: Christie didn’t say he’d run, but didn’t rule it out as emphatically as he had before. This news won coverage on the local TV morning talk shows and appeared on the front page of the “Metro & Iowa” section of the Des Moines Register. A shorter Pawlenty story ran on page 8B.

There isn’t much credible polling in Iowa yet, but what polling there is suggests Pawlenty has a lot of work ahead of him. The day of his town hall in Council Bluffs, Public Policy Polling released a survey of past Iowa primary voters that put Pawlenty in sixth place—behind Mitt Romney (21 percent), Sarah Palin and Herman Cain (15 percent each), Newt Gingrich (12 percent), and Michele Bachmann (11 percent). And yet in a head-to-head match-up with Romney, the presumptive frontrunner, Pawlenty polls better than any other Republican in the field—tied at 41 percent each. (Romney beats Palin 48-41 percent, Cain 48-34 percent, Bachmann 46-38 percent.)

Those numbers, and interviews with Iowa Republicans over the past week, suggest Pawlenty may be well positioned as the most electable non-Romney candidate in Iowa. Virtually everyone I spoke to assumes a surge from the right—maybe for Herman Cain, maybe Michele Bachmann, maybe both. But however appealing these two might be ideologically, will ever-pragmatic Iowa caucus-goers finally support them given the questions about whether they can win the Republican nomination? Mike Huckabee surged from the right to win Iowa in 2008, but he was a former governor and a far more plausible national candidate. And he lost the nomination.

Given this, we might expect to hear Pawlenty begin to take some shots at Mitt Romney or at least start to highlight their policy differences. When Pawlenty announced, a headline in Time magazine asked: “Is He Too Nice for His Own Good?” And so far, the answer is yes.

In an interview over pineapple and omelets last week, Pawlenty steadfastly—even stubbornly—refused to offer criticism of the frontrunner.

After a 30-minute discussion of policy, I asked Pawlenty: “Do you trust Mitt Romney?”

“Can I jump back to China for a second?”

We laughed, I accused him of stalling, and he talked for two minutes about the need to get tough with China on trade. “I’m for free trade, but I’m not for being a chump.”

After Pawlenty got a five-minute warning on time from press secretary Alex Conant, he returned to the question.

“Mitt Romney? Well, I know Mitt somewhat, and I worked with him when he was a governor and I was a governor. And I get along with him, we’ve socialized a bit together, and I like him. So yeah, I do trust him. I have no reason not to.”

I asked whether he understands the skepticism about Romney voiced by some conservatives and many in the Tea Party. “I’ve read the criticism. So I understand their -arguments,” he said, taking a big bite of his omelet and offering nothing further.

Pawlenty wasn’t any more forthcoming when I pointed out that both men had been presumed presidential candidates since 2009 and asked what makes them different.

“Everybody brings something different to the table. Each candidate has a different life story—who they are, what they believe, why they believe it. Where they came from, what roots they have in life in terms of their value systems, beliefs. Everyone is going to be different. Mine is different than Mitt’s and all the other candidates, too. Two, everybody’s going to have a record. They’re going to be different—different emphasis, different success, different frustrations. And three, everybody will have some different vision and different leadership capacity for the country. And each candidate is going to be different—not limited to Mitt but for each candidate.” So 11 “differents” but no real difference.

“When you look at his record,” I asked, “what do you see that makes you say, ‘I need to be president and not that guy?’ ”

“I’ve said I’m going to abide by Reagan’s 11th commandment and not whack other Republicans or at least not be the first one to whack them. I do remind people I’m an old hockey player, and if elbows start getting thrown, I’m not averse to getting in the corner and start throwing some myself. But we’re not going to start that process.”

He added: “We’re going to try our best not to be critical of other Republicans and just to be positive and tell people what I bring to the table and let people make their own conclusions about whether it’s better or worse than the other candidates.”

Jeff Jorgensen, chairman of the local Pottawattamie County GOP, says Pawlenty’s visit got mostly good reviews, adding, “He may well be on his way to establishing himself as a first-tier candidate, but his star is going to have to shine brighter than it is right now.”

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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