By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is doing just fine, his supporters say.
On the short list of many national pundits as a possible vice presidential candidate, Pawlenty was passed over again when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — like Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain four years ago — picked somebody else.
Romney, whom Pawlenty has heavily campaigned for, selected Wisconsin Congressman and budget hawk Paul Ryan.
Pawlenty immediately signaled support.
“I am excited about a Romney-Ryan ticket and look forward to doing all I can to help them win this election,” he said in a statement.
Appearing on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (Aug. 12), Pawlenty insisted he hadn’t been supporting Romney because he thought he would be vice president.
“I’m not disappointed I didn’t get something I didn’t expect,” Pawlenty said.
Former Pawlenty Chief of Staff and commissioner Dan McElroy, president/CEO of Hospitality Minnesota, said Pawlenty indicated weeks ago the Romney campaign should look at other vice-presidential contenders.
“He’s a young kid,” McElroy said, depicting Pawlenty’s future as wide open.
“He’s enormously talented,” he said.
“And he’s busy,” said McElroy, pointing to Pawlenty’s growing ties to the private sector as a corporate board member.
If Pawlenty decides to enter public service again, that would be great, McElroy said. But Pawlenty has already made an huge contribution, he said.
“I want whatever Tim wants,” McElroy said, backing his old boss.
Hennepin County Commissioner and Minnesota Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson expects Pawlenty to reenter public service.
“I don’t think he’s done,” said Johnson, who served in the Legislature during the Pawlenty years.
Pundits in Minnesota view the U.S. Senate race in 2014, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken faces re-election, as an opportunity for Pawlenty to reemerge.
Pawlenty would be a strong U.S. Senate candidate, Johnson believes. Or, too, Pawlenty could join the Romney Administration, Johnson said.
In the meantime, Pawlenty can earn the money in the private sector he has foregone during his years in public office, Johnson said.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams in recent days has been privately saying he thought Romney would pick Ryan.
He wouldn’t have been surprised had Pawlenty gotten the nod, explained Grams, but Ryan brings Washington experience.
And Ryan intimately knows the federal budget numbers, Grams said.
“Tim has been a good guy — a smart kid,” Grams said,
Grams, who believes Romney will beat Democratic President Barack Obama unless something “weird” happens, sees Pawlenty’s immediate future as serving in the Romney administration, perhaps as secretary of agriculture or secretary of human services.
“His (Pawlenty’s) eyes are on the campaign, and I think that’s where his focus is,” Grams said.
The national punditry long ago pinned the label of charisma-challenged on Pawlenty, and even Pawlenty supporters do not grow lyrical in describing the strengths of the two-term governor.
“He’s not a man who’s larger than life,” said Rep. Jim Abeler. R-Anoka, shortly after Pawlenty declared his short-lived presidential candidacy on a baking rooftop in Des Moine, Iowa, last summer.
Pawlenty perhaps would not mind being seen as the Maytag repair man of politician — knowledgeable, competent, right tool in hand, explained Abeler, who served with Pawlenty in the state House of Representatives.
Indeed, pundits suggested one of the strongest assets Pawlenty could bring the Romney ticket is finite stage presence — an assurance that he would not outshine Romney, a candidate who awkwardly expresses a sense of homecoming by noting the trees seem the right height.
Actually, the diagnosis that Pawlenty, whose tenure as governor – with a state government shutdown, whopping budget deficits, chaffing No New Tax Pledge, friendly and unfriendly state supreme court rulings – is boring seems unfair to longtime Pawlenty watchers.
It was Pawlenty, after all, who put an Iron Range lawmaker into a headlock and once thought nothing of donning a sweat-stained cowboy hat and taking Dobbin for spin on a sweltering day when greeting a travelling horseman.
As House majority leader, Pawlenty could be funny and joking on the floor, and he and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, an unabashed admirer, would sometimes act out skits at press conferences.
“He’s got a good sense of humor,” said Charley Weaver, Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director and former Pawlenty chief of staff.
Johnson diagnoses the charisma-challenged charge as reflecting the numbing influence of teleprompters and Pawlenty’s reluctance to throw the bombs that conservative activists demand.
But Pawlenty, 51, consciously knocked off the funny business.
In an exit interview when leaving the governorship, Pawlenty said that with the Internet and armies of bloggers, jokes can be seized and twisted into something unpleasant.
“I miss those days, because I’d rather continue like that,” Pawlenty said of freer times.
Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.
Professor Heather LaMarre of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication said last summer that the general public knew little about Pawlenty, and because of that, the charge that he is boring could stick.
“(And) it’s very difficult to overcome a first impression,” she said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Aug. 8-12 showed just 14 percent of conservative Republicans held “strongly favorable” views of Pawlenty prior to the Ryan pick.
Bill Hillsman, of Northwoods Advertising, a firm that has produced iconic campaign ads for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, said Pawlenty’s son-of-a-truck-driver, blue-collar image seemed unconvincing — a son of a truck driver would never have meekly stood down from running for the U.S. Senate because the Bush White House placed a call, he argued last summer.
“I think the real problem for Pawlenty is there’s not a lot there,” said Hillsman.
Critics have found Pawlenty’s explanation of his conservative roots, considering his upbringing in Democratically-leaning South St. Paul and the union ties among his siblings, a little puzzling.
In his campaign book, “Courage to Stand,” Pawlenty expresses a certain a mystification.
“Why I became a conservative so early on is anyone’s guess, but my steadfast views were on display immediately through the course of those kitchen-table debates with my dad or others,” Pawlenty wrote.
His tenure as governor was historic, Pawlenty insists.
“I am the first true fiscally conservative governor in that regard the state has had, in the modern history of the state,” said Pawlenty shortly before leaving office.
So deeply ingrained is the idea among Democrats and the pundits that it’s normal to raise taxes, they can’t understand him, Pawlenty said.
“‘He must have an ill motive or mental defect, because he just won’t raise taxes or act like a Democrat,’” a testy Pawlenty depicted them pondering.
“I would say to you respectfully, it’s a bunch of crap,” said Pawlenty.
In his book, Pawlenty chronicles the harsh impact the closure of the once thriving stockyards of South St. Paul had on his family and city, the early loss of his mother to cancer, the joys of playing hockey, of family.
One former House Republican, Kathy Tingelstad, a South St. Paul native, remembers young Tim Pawlenty working in Applebaum’s, a local grocery store, stacking fruit and vegetables.
Although Pawlenty issued a statement after the Iowa Straw poll last summer he intended to continue his presidential campaign, the next morning he dropped out.
Pawlenty has expressed regret over the decision.
One tie Pawlenty has to the Romney campaign, other than his active support that has him traveling the country as a Romney surrogate, is the friendship his wife, Mary Pawlenty, has reportedly struck with Romney’s wife, Ann Romney.
National media have reported that Mary Pawlenty, a former judge, and Ann Romney are genuinely fond of one another.
The Pawlentys met as law school students at the University of Minnesota.
“What I sensed right away was that I was very interested in her,” Pawlenty said of his first impressions.
“I thought she was beautiful, intelligent, strong, interesting, caring and somebody I was attracted to,” Pawlenty said.
Mary Pawlenty sensed the tall, thoughtful student from South St. Paul would go places.
The Pawlentys married in 1987 and have two daughters, Anna and Mara.
While Tim Pawlenty’s reference to his highly successful wife as his “red-hot smokin’ wife” sparked criticism, Mary Pawlenty insisted she found the language lovable.
“Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but I don’t know a woman alive who wouldn’t love to have her husband refer to her has his ‘red-hot smokin’ wife,” Mary Pawlenty said as First Lady.
“I find that to be so unbelievably endearing and I adore him for saying that,” she said at the time.
In his book, Tim Pawlenty speaks of his wife, an evangelical Christian, as helping him understand the ongoing, dynamic relevance of Scripture to life.
While raised a Catholic, Pawlenty was drawn to Mary Pawlenty’s religious views and church, Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.
Whatever the personal blessings Pawlenty’s faith has brought him, his evangelical credentials are seen as politically useful to Romney – a means of pacifying the uneasiness some evangelicals may feel in voting for a Mormon.
Pawlenty never broke the 50 percent threshold in his gubernatorial elections — 44 percent in 2002, about 47 percent in 2006 — and political watchers in Minnesota consider it highly improbable the Man from Eagan can deliver the state for Romney.
Still, Sviggum, who has spent decades in state government, said Pawlenty possesses one of the sharpest minds for policy that he’s ever encountered.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, whose 1982 reelection campaign Pawlenty worked on as a college student, recalls Pawlenty as someone who enjoyed figuring out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
Minnesota Democrats characterize the Pawlenty legacy as one of budgeting gimmicks, property tax hikes, robotic adherence to ideology.
Weaver sees things differently.
“In a nutshell, I’d say he reinstated fiscal sanity,” Weaver said last summer.
“That’s a very big deal,” he said.