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Pawlenty's Promise and Peril

6:04 PM, May 5, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty arguably has the most to lose or gain in tonight's Republican presidential debate in Greenville, South Carolina. That's because he seems to be the only one of the five candidates participating in debate with a good shot of actually becoming the Republican nominee.

Pawlenty Tim

The four other candidates at tonight's debate are Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO and unsuccessful Georgia Senate candidate Herman Cain. Why aren't the others really in the hunt? Paul and Johnson will be vying for the libertarian/anti-interventionist vote, which could grow this time, but totaled just 7.8% for Paul in New Hampshire's 2008 primary. As for Santorum and Cain, losing a Senate race hasn't been a stepping stone to the presidency since 1860 (but what great fortune Republicans had then).

So that leaves Pawlenty, the recently retired conservative two-term governor of a Democratic-leaning state, with the best chance of being the Republican standard-bearer in the end. Tonight's debate could help Pawlenty establish himself as a consensus candidate--a fiscal and social conservative as well as a hawk--aggressive enough for movement conservatives but not too abrasive for the establishment. He's still trying to increase his name-ID among Republican voters, and the free air time tonight could help. Maybe he'll tangle with the libertarians Paul and Johnson over the war in Afghanistan, and show himself to be a serious foreign policy thinker to the hawks who still dominate the party.

On the other hand, Pawlenty potentially has a lot to lose. While the knock against him is that he isn't "exciting" enough, many conservatives have pointed out that overcompensating for his lack of pizzazz is a greater danger to Pawlenty.

"At CPAC in 2010, he went on a tear against brie-eating elites that made him sound like someone trying hard to impress conservative activists without really understanding them," National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in a favorable cover story on Pawlenty. "If he does not find a truer pitch, Pawlenty could find himself developing a reputation for being inauthentic, far more damaging than one for being boring." THE WEEKLY STANDARD's Matthew Continetti and Jazz Shaw at Hot Air have made similar observations about Pawlenty's rhetoric. 

For example, the administration's Syria policy is a "complete crock," Pawlenty has said. The national debt is a "pile of poo" he said another time. "You skedaddle like a little ninny out of the state," he taunted the truant Wisconsin state senators this spring. ("Skedaddle" is a perfectly fine word. But "ninnies"? That's folksiness overload.)

At another speech to College Republicans, Pawlenty sounded like a "cool dad" trying too hard to appeal to younger voters, including Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga references in his remarks.

And then there was the candidate forum in Iowa, where the South Saint Paul native actually seemed to be speaking with a Southern drawl (you can listen here). That's the kind of thing that could really brand Pawlenty as inauthentic and do serious damage. Lucky for him, no one was paying attention to the event except Dana Milbank

But voters are just beginning to wake up from the GOP snoozefest. It will be interesting to see what kind of first impression Pawlenty makes in this debate. Maybe he won't lay on the sometimes folksy sometimes tough-guy rhetoric too thickly. Perhaps he's already figured out how to succesfully pursue the "Goldilocks strategy." We'll have a better sense when the debate begins at 9:00 p.m. eastern time tonight.

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