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Mulling 2012, Pawlenty Takes Restrained Plunge

Mulling 2012, Pawlenty Takes Restrained Plunge

By Scott Conroy - August 6, 2010

As he explores a potential presidential run, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has been branded with the "too conventional" label so many times that it's already become a cliché. But Pawlenty insists he's not as boring as many pundits have made him out to be.

"I think if people get to know me better, it's just not true," the second-term Republican said in a phone interview with RealClearPolitics between meetings in St. Paul. "But the other response I have is: compared to who? There may be some more people who are dramatically more entertaining, but probably aren't getting elected. And there are some people who are, you know, serious candidates. I would say, which one of those is a barrel of laughs or somehow in a different league as far as excitement?"

Of course, there is that other hockey-loving Republican who tends to draw more than a passing interest in the media. But when pressed directly about the woman who edged him out to be John McCain's running mate in 2008, Pawlenty was deferential.

"I think Sarah Palin is somebody who has got a lot of talent and I think is very important to the conservative movement," he said. "I think she's been a successful leader and I think she's got a very bright future in front of her. And I think she is electable."

Pawlenty is often assumed to be positioning himself as the alternative to likely 2012 rival Mitt Romney, but the contrast with Palin is even more profound.

While Palin has mastered the art of amplifying and then defining the debate on the kinds of issues that dominate the 24-hour shout-a-sphere, Pawlenty relies on shoe leather and closed-door meetings far more than his Facebook page or his Twitter account.

Pawlenty's relatively low profile has meant that background meetings with national political reporters, a campaign-style biographical video, and increasingly frequent trips to Iowa haven't been able to wait until after the midterms.

"Minnesota and Iowa are a lot alike," he said in what is sure to become a familiar refrain. "If you start from southern Minnesota into northern Iowa, unless you saw a sign, you wouldn't know when you crossed over...it's a comfortable place for me."

Having just returned from a three-day swing through the first caucus state that was ostensibly on behalf of local candidates, Pawlenty is already scheduled to return to Iowa next week for two fundraisers, an event with Republican gubernatorial nominee Terry Branstad, and an appearance at the must attend event for anyone who's caught the early presidential bug.

"The Iowa State Fair is similar to the Minnesota State Fair, and I'm a longtime aficionado of all things deep fried, all things on a stick," Pawlenty said. "So if you're talking cheese curds, caramelized bacon, deep fried snickers bars... you name it, I'm on it."

Pawlenty's efforts to increase his visibility have not thus far translated into many headlines beyond a low-key New York Times profile and fireworks-free appearance on The Daily Show. And that seems to be just fine with the governor and his political staff.

When controversy over the planned construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero boiled over in New York City and became national news, Palin's voice was among the most emphatic as she took to her Twitter account to call on "peace-seeking Muslims" to reject what she called an "unnecessary provocation."

Pawlenty left the mosque matter alone until coming out against the now-approved plan when asked about it for this story.

"I'm strongly opposed to the idea of putting a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero-I think it's inappropriate," he said. "I believe that 3,000 of our fellow innocent citizens were killed in that area, and some ways from a patriotic standpoint, it's hallowed ground, it's sacred ground, and we should respect that. We shouldn't have images or activities that degrade or disrespect that in any way."

Just as Pawlenty was more restrained than Palin in jumping into the mosque controversy, he has also been more low-key about what has become one of Romney's pet issues: the nuclear arms control START II Treaty with Russia, which is currently being held in Senate limbo.

Whereas Romney angered some in the Republican foreign policy establishment by coming out strongly against the treaty in a Washington Post op-ed last month that ran under the headline "Obama's Worst Foreign Policy Mistake," Pawlenty has been less emphatic, though largely in agreement with Romney.

"I have serious concerns about it and particularly concerns about the language in the preamble that the Russians believe prohibits or limits America's ability to deploy further anti-missile defense systems," Pawlenty said. "I also don't like the general premise behind this treaty and others like it that somehow the United States and Russia are on equal footing."

Pawlenty has been boosting his foreign policy resume with three visits to Afghanistan and five to Iraq already under his belt. He recently returned from both countries and said that he sees progress in the new Afghanistan strategy.

He spoke glowingly of David Petreaus, calling him "an historic and epic figure" and an "outstanding choice" by President Obama to replace ousted General Stanley McChrystal.

Pawlenty is slated to visit China on an official trade mission during the first week of September and will spend the rest of that month largely focused on end-of-quarter fundraising before returning to the stump on behalf of 2010 candidates.

After his memoir is released in early January, Pawlenty will likely spend some time on the book signing circuit and then make a decision about whether he's running for president soon after that.

If Pawlenty does decide to run, he will likely go full-throttle in Iowa, where he will hope that his conservative bona fides, his status as a near-local son, and his blue-collar background can overcome his better-known competitors and post a first or second place finish that would help catapult him into the top tier of the Republican pack.

Treating Iowa as a near must-win state echoes Romney's failed strategy during the 2008 campaign, but Pawlenty would be banking on an ability to connect with voters there in the kind of deeply personal way that they have always demanded.

"When you're talking about affording college or worrying about how they can afford their health insurance, or whether they're going to have a job, or putting gas in a car, or even if they can afford a car, it speaks to a life perspective and life experiences," Pawlenty said of connecting with voters. "And you know, I have been there. I understand what you feel, and I understand what you're up against. And I also understand what it's going to take to fix it."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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