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Land of Pawlenty

Can he win Iowa?

Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Council Bluffs

T Paw

DAVE MALAN

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.

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