As a result, with John McCain as the clear GOP frontrunner and insider talk turning to speculation about his possible running mate, party insiders are now buzzing about the 47-year-old, second-term governor’s vice-presidential prospects.
Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman-turned-Washington-lobbyist who is one of Pawlenty’s biggest boosters, ticks off the list of appealing traits.
“First of all, his age is attractive,” Weber says, hinting at the nearly quarter-century difference between his fellow Minnesotan and the 71-year-old McCain. “Second, he’s from outside Washington. Third, he represents a battleground part of the country. And he has a nice balance of, on one hand being totally acceptable to conservative wing of the party, especially to social conservatives, but at the same time sharing a couple of key maverick strains of thought with McCain.”
Weber isn't Pawlenty's only Washington admirer. Sara Taylor, former White House political director and a veteran of both Bush-Cheney campaigns, contacted this reporter to offer unsolicited observations on the governor.
Declining to say how she got wind of the story, Taylor lavished praise on Pawlenty. "By far, he's the strongest candidate" to serve as McCain's running mate, she said.
"He's a conservative, rock-n-roll Republican and is counterintuitive to the party stereotype that we're old and rich,” says Taylor, who recalled visiting St. Paul and finding the governor jamming in his office to recording artist Bruce Springsteen. “He's young and blue-collar."
And, Taylor said, in a potential race against the 46-year-old Barack Obama, Pawlenty would be "as good as our party has for that [match-up].
There is another key factor working in Pawlenty’s favor. Unlike Weber, until last week a top policy adviser to Mitt Romney, the governor was an early and active McCain supporter, helping to lobby fellow governors as early as December 2006, and he stayed loyal through the unpleasantness last year.
“He stuck with us through thin,” says senior McCain adviser Charlie Black. “He went anywhere we asked and did anything we asked him to do.”
“He is a rising star in the party,” adds Black.
Still, Black cautions that McCain “has not spent one second thinking about a running mate.”
Once Mike Huckabee is dispatched and McCain is able to fully focus on the general election, that conversation will take place. And when it does, it will be sure to include Pawlenty, the kid from South St. Paul who became the first in his family to graduate from college.
Two phrases tend to pop up in every Pawlenty profile: “truck driver” and “hockey.”
His mother died of cancer when he was 16 and he was reared in a working-class neighborhood – later featured in a campaign commercial – by a Teamster father who brought up five kids on a milk truck driver’s salary.
And even though he topped out on his high school’s junior varsity squad, Pawlenty still laces up the skates and plays ice hockey with other over-the-hill ex-jocks.
Add in his fondness for fishing – after hockey, the state’s other obsession — and “TPaw”, as the North Star state chattering class calls him, fits the mold of an average Minnesota guy.
That regular-guy, suburban persona is matched with retail political skills that have enabled him to twice win election in a left-leaning state with a long progressive tradition.
“He’s a phenomenal talent,” says Lawrence Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. “He’s Clintonian in terms of being able to connect with an audience. It just dries Democrats crazy.”
One of those Democrats who battled Pawlenty when the governor served as state House Majority Leader was Roger Moe, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party stalwart who served as state Senate Majority Leader for over two decades.
“Politically, he’s pretty skilled, no question about it,” says Moe, who lost in a three-way gubernatorial race to Pawlenty in 2002. “He’s a bright guy and very charming, no question about it.”
The Pawlenty who holds office now, however, is not the same as the one Moe recalled from their days serving together in St. Paul. “He was not this conservative in the legislature,” Moe says.
Moe claims that since being re-elected in 2006 and getting involved in the McCain campaign, Pawlenty has put his national aspirations first.
“Everything he’s done is colored through those lenses,” Moe says, pointing to Pawlenty’s state of the state speech this week where he took a hard-line against any new taxes.
Another Minnesotan who has also clashed with Pawlenty, but from his right rather than his left, agrees.
“He’s got to stay more fiscally conservative now than he otherwise would,” says this conservative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his governor. “It’s great so far in that it keeps the governor more conservative than he otherwise may be.”
To be sure, Pawlenty is not a darling of his state’s conservative base. In 2002, he lost in an initial precinct caucus straw poll vote to a more conservative candidate before later getting his party’s nod in a state convention. And he was unable to deliver McCain a victory in similar non-binding caucuses on Super Tuesday.
Befitting his blue-collar roots, Pawlenty has something of a populist streak. These “Sam’s Club Republican” tendencies – as he likes to call them – are reflected in his strong support for allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada, something which the major pharmaceutical companies have strenuously opposed.
But overall his is a fairly conservative gubernatorial record. An abortion rights opponent, he signed into law a waiting-period for abortions. He also got a long-sought concealed weapon permit into law.
Though not known politically as a Christian conservative, Pawlenty, who was raised Catholic, and his wife attend perhaps the most prominent mega-church in the state, Wooddale, in suburban Eden Prairie.
The church is pastored by Leith Anderson, the interim head of the National Association of Evangelicals and a well-known figure among believers. Pawlenty’s wife, a former judge, is active in Christian conservative circles, serving on the board of her alma mater, Bethel University, a Baptist college near the Twin Cities.
Tom Prichard, head of the Minnesota Family Council, says Pawlenty has been an ally. “He hung tough on domestic partnerships and opposed comprehensive sex education.”
While noting that he recently posted a blog entry on his group’s website touting Pawlenty’s vice-presidential prospects, Prichard adds: “I’d hate to lose him in Minnesota.”
Like McCain, it’s on the environment and on fiscal issues where Pawlenty draws fire from the right.
“He’s a little too green,” says Phil Krinkie, a former Republican state legislator who now heads the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota.
Along with many other governors, Pawlenty has seized on the issue of global warming and has used much of his second term to promote energy conservation with a goal of producing 25 percent of the state’s electricity by renewable sources by 2025.
On fiscal issues, Pawlenty might also be perceived by some on the right as impure. Tax hawks point to the 75-cent tax on cigarettes he greenlighted in 2005 to balance the budget.
“Since then he’sgone back and held the line,” offers Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. “Particularly in the wake of the [Interstate 35W] bridge collapse tragedy, that he did not allow himself to get mau-maued into tax increases speaks very well of him.”
The I-35W crisis last summer may have helped Pawlenty in other ways, too.
“He did everything Bush didn’t do with Katrina,” notes Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier. “He was on the scene and people liked that.”
Still, Schier notes that Pawlenty, whose approval numbers are now in the mid-50s after he eked out a 2006 re-election victory, is not “some historically popular figure out here.”
Rather, Schier says, “He’s a survivor in a Democratic environment.”
Jacobs, the University of Minnesota professor, calls him “the most conservative governor in state history.” But that’s a little like saying that the Twins are the best Major League Baseball team in state history – there hasn’t been another.
Pawlenty’s ability to thrive as a conservative in a somewhat hostile political landscape speaks to his considerable inter-personal skills.
“He could speak to a room of socialists and come out making new friends,” concedes his anonymous conservative critic.
Krinkie puts in terms more topical and blunt.
“He would balance the ticket balance ticket in the sense that as McCain is old, dull and boring, Tim is youthful, exuberant and very charismatic.”
But could Pawlenty deliver Minnesota to the GOP column, something that hasn’t happened since Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972?
Krinkie, Moe and the unaligned analysts are skeptical. Even Weber concedes that Pawlenty on the ticket wouldn’t make Minnesota “a slam dunk.”
But, says Weber, he would at least put it in play.
And that may be one of Pawlenty’s biggest assets. Beyond passing the conservative litmus test and appealing to swing voters, he is the lone big-state, two-term Republican governor in the heartland. And Minnesota’s media markets reach into two other traditionally contested states along the upper Mississippi River, Wisconsin and Iowa.
With Democratic governors holding power in those two states—as well as in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan—the bench of Republican chief executives in the Midwest is awfully thin.
So far, Pawlenty has spent much time on the road stumping for McCain. But as with any veep hopeful, he’s repeatedly begged off questions about being McCain’s running mate. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
An adviser, though, shared the extent of the governor’s travel at a reporter’s request: Three trips to Iowa, two to New Hampshire, three to Michigan and one each to Florida and Illinois.
Pawlenty has done more than just stump for McCain. He has conducted surrogate media interviews from St. Paul, twisted the arms of his fellow governors and raised cash for McCain, both in Minnesota and through donor calls out-of-state.
And now he’s about to take on a more prominent national role, at least for a moment. As head of the National Governors Association, he’ll lead his fellow chief executives to Washington next weekend for their annual Winter Meeting – a high-profile event where he’s sure to draw even more notice from the political press corps.