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Pawlenty Gets a Tough Question in N.H.

Pawlenty Gets a Tough Question in N.H.

By Scott Conroy - March 11, 2011

MANCHESTER, N.H. - If there is one skill that any Republican presidential candidate with hopes of winning the New Hampshire primary needs to possess, it is an ability to handle encounters with voters like Ray Shakir of North Conway.

Wearing a "Live Free Or Die" baseball cap and a wool sweater with the words "New Hampshire" scrawled in bold letters across the chest, Shakir made sure to carve out space in the front row Wednesday night when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty addressed a crowd of GOP activists who packed into 2010 Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne's house in Manchester.

A retired construction manager originally from New York, Shakir made the two-hour drive south to attend the Pawlenty event from the picturesque town in the White Mountains where he moved 15 years ago. But Shakir had no intention of simply listening quietly while Pawlenty delivered his already well-trodden stump speech.

"The last time I had the pleasure of being in Ovide's house, Rick Santorum was standing right where you are," Shakir said after Pawlenty called on him to open the Q & A portion of the event. "I asked him, ‘Rick, can you please comment on ethanol.' And he said all the right things. Then he went to Iowa. I'm not going to say what he said there. So can you please comment on ethanol?"

Pawlenty responded to Shakir's aggressive line of questioning by launching into a broad summary of his energy policy and generated applause from many in the crowd when he called for greater energy independence. The former governor then pointed out that all American energy is subsidized by the federal government in some way and noted that Minnesota no longer provides direct payments to ethanol producers.

"But the bottom line is if the industry is going to change from what it is now and get to the next level they're going to have a breakthrough on cellulosic biofuels, and they know that," Pawlenty said in wrapping up his answer more than four minutes after Shakir asked his question.

Shakir hardly skipped a beat before launching his counterpunch. "However," the North Conway retiree said, allowing a dramatic pause to reverberate around the room before continuing. "There's also a lot of other drawbacks of ethanol, including that it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it does to produce a gallon of gasoline."

Sensing that Shakir had not received satisfaction, Pawlenty expounded upon his answer some more and even worked in a reference to his own snow blower in making his case.

An obvious hit with the standing room only crowd, Pawlenty handled additional questions on foreign policy and the federal budget before Lamontagne presented him with a University of New Hampshire hockey jersey, which the hockey enthusiast said that he would wear during a scheduled skate on Friday.

Many of the Republican activists Pawlenty shook hands with after he stepped away from the microphone offered him encouragement, and even Shakir was polite.

But the North Conway Republican remained decidedly unconvinced, and said that former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton - a longshot prospective GOP candidate - might get his vote in the New Hampshire primary, if none of the more electable candidates addressed his concerns about ethanol subsidies satisfactorily.

"If you're honest with the people, we're going to sense that," Shakir said. "So in my view, the more willing you are to go up to somebody in Iowa and say, ‘I hate corn,' the more electable you are. I know that's controversial, but at the same time, that's what I truly believe."

Shakir's brusque candor epitomized the typically persistent and demanding New Hampshire primary voter that prospective candidates are warned about. Yet they  cannot fully appreciate the challenge until they take their first set of questions at a town hall meeting in Goffstown or have an unscripted encounter with a insistent supermarket shopper in Concord.

Voters in both of the nation's first two voting states are rightly renowned for the seriousness with which they take their outsized roles in the presidential nominating process every four years. But Iowans typically exhibit a certain level of Midwestern congeniality in their dealing with candidates. New Hampshire voters tend to carry with them more of Ray Shakir's in-your-face defiance.

Prospective candidates like Pawlenty who plan to devote significant resources to both states are faced with the tricky task of appealing to each set of voters, while avoiding the appearance of kowtowing to the other. In a brief interview after the Manchester event ended, Pawlenty's wife Mary said that her husband understood and appreciated his Thursday night audience.

"I think his passion was really reflective of the energy tonight and the folks who were here," she said. "You can tell that the people here genuinely care about the process."

But only the coming months will reveal which of the Republican contenders is best equipped to harness those unscripted New Hampshire moments that can define a campaign.

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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