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By Jay Cost

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Republicans Would Do Well To Consider Pawlenty

This week, the Minnesota Post reported that Tim Pawlenty is laying the foundation for a run at the Presidency:

Since at least April -- well before he announced his decision not to run for a third term -- Gov. Pawlenty has been laying the organizational and financial groundwork for a potential run for president.

Fund-raising is under way for an organization that would allow Pawlenty to travel around the country, showing his face, developing his message and forming alliances with like-minded Republicans. Professional political fund-raisers are working on this.

Pawlenty has directly addressed groups of potential donors, and checks have been written.

Republicans would be well advised to give Pawlenty some serious consideration. I can think of two reasons.

First, his home state. The following chart tracks the Democratic "tilt" of Minnesota from 1968 through 2008:

Minnesota Tilt.jpg

From the Civil War to the Great Depression, Minnesota was a reliably Republican state - only defecting in 1912, and even then it supported Teddy Roosevelt. Then came the Great Depression - and ever since Minnesota has been solidly Democratic. While Eisenhower carried it twice at about the same level he won the nationwide vote, it has been a tough nut for the GOP to crack. The size of the Democratic tilt was once such that only Nixon - with his landslide victory in 1972 - could carry it. Not coincidentally, the state has provided Democrats with two of the nine presidential candidates from that chart.

But George W. Bush came close to winning the state in 2000 and 2004. Though Obama's victory was decisive last year - it was not far off from his nationwide share of the two-party vote. Thirty years ago, a Democrat who won 54% of the nationwide two-party popular vote would probably have won upwards of 60% in Minnesota.

The bottom line is that, for Republicans, running a candidate from Minnesota implies a very strong chance of picking up its 10 electoral votes, something the party has not done since 1972.

Second, Pawlenty could provide a nice tonal contrast to Barack Obama. He was, of course, a contender for McCain's vice-presidential slot - but the rap on him at the time was that he was not exciting enough. That was probably a fair criticism last year. Given the macro forces working against the GOP - McCain was smart to think he needed a veep candidate to shake things up.

But matters could be different in 2012. Generally speaking, reelection campaigns are all about the incumbent. If the public approves of Obama's performance - he'll be reelected regardless of what the Republican party does. So, when the GOP is mulling which contender to nominate, the best approach is not to ask which one can make the race close, but rather which one can best capitalize if the race is close. And in this way, Pawlenty could be a good candidate precisely because he is a bit on the boring side.

President Obama is regularly credited with being an electrifying speaker with a charismatic presence. If, however, the public comes to sour on his job performance by the next election, it might be drawn to the opposite qualities. This has happened several times in the last 20 years. George H.W. Bush was seen as non-empathetic. Bill Clinton was full of empathy, and could capitalize on the contrast. Clinton came to be seen as lacking moral rectitude. George W. Bush seemed upright, and could again capitalize. Finally, the younger Bush came to be seen as overly certain. Obama took advantage by emphasizing his ability to see shades of gray.

In other words, when incumbent presidents lose their luster, those with qualities opposite theirs can stand to gain. If the public sours on Obama, his pizzazz and speechifying abilities could be rebranded as a negative - "all sizzle and no steak." In that situation, the GOP might do well to have somebody who can't make a political rally look like a Beatles concert. Boring could be pitched as competent, sensible, and able to get the job done.

Of course, it's still very early. My point is simply that the contrast between Obama and Pawlenty might be a beneficial one for the GOP to offer if the public has soured on the incumbent. If it hasn't - it really does not matter what the party does. Popular incumbents never lose.

-Jay Cost