It was after 8 p.m. at the public library in the quiet town of Adel, Iowa, and staffers were folding up the metal chairs. Tim Pawlenty's question-and-answer session had wrapped up some 30 minutes earlier, but a handful of voters were still here, and therefore so was Pawlenty, tall and lean in his dark suit, staying as always until no one was left to talk with him. When the polls show you in the low single digits, you make time for everyone.
Presently, one middle-aged man in a blazer was telling Pawlenty why Republicans need a tough-talking presidential candidate like Donald Trump. "We need to be bold," he implored. Conservatives were going to be attacked in 2012, and they had to be willing to fight back hard. Was Pawlenty up to it?
The candidate smiled patiently, crinkling the crow's-feet around his eyes. He'd heard this before. "Don't confuse being loud with being strong," Pawlenty told him. The man began to protest something about threatening to shoot illegal immigrants at the border but Pawlenty gently interrupted him. Republicans had to pick their fights wisely, he said. "You and I already agree with each other. The question is, The people we need to get how do they respond? We need to reach out and get new people to join the team."
That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing Tim Pawlenty as he launches his campaign for the GOP nomination. Conservative activists want a political ninja to kickbox his way to the White House. There's a reason a brash loudmouth like Trump was a brief Republican sensation this spring. But that's not Tim Pawlenty, he of the Minnesota-nice demeanor and goofy sense of humor. His appeal is in the middle, not the margin. He's smart, likable and decent and, as the blue collar son of a truck driver, has a powerful American story to tell. He cut taxes and reined in spending in his two terms as governor of Minnesota, proving himself a solid conservative but not a fanatical ideologue. Those credentials have earned him the respect of Republican insiders. But poll after poll shows that he's yet to catch on with voters.
But in a strange way, the stars could be aligning for Pawlenty. It's been said that the 2012 Republican campaign has been a gong show, featuring more dropouts than volunteers. (Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour and Trump have all stepped back in recent weeks, and Sarah Palin is a question mark at best.) After months of uncertainty, the GOP field seems to have congealed around a handful of candidates who could plausibly win the nomination: Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and the consensus front runner, Mitt Romney. "Pawlenty is a very credible candidate for the nomination," says former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie. "I would not be surprised if at the end of the day it comes down to him and somebody else." In an unusually weak 2012 Republican field, it's just possible that Tim Pawlenty will be the last Republican standing.
An Unlikely Politician
"I can win the election," Tim Pawlenty says. It is April 15, and he is at a roadside diner near Concord, N.H., a couple of hours before he is scheduled to address a tax-day Tea Party rally outside the state capitol. The 50-year-old Pawlenty has a chipper manner, and he smiles as he explains over a cup of black coffee how he can replace Barack Obama.
"I think I'm the one candidate in the race who can unite and excite the whole conservative movement and the Republican Party," he says, arguing that he can appeal at once to conservatives focused on social issues, the budget and national security. "I think most of the other candidates are going to appeal to one of those buckets. But I can appeal to all of them deeply and authentically, and I've got the record to back it up."
And in a general election against Obama? "I have an interesting and helpful and compelling personal story that defies the Republican stereotype," he says. "Given my blue collar background, given my record as governor, given the things I've accomplished ... I can make a connection with people and market our message effectively and lead effectively."
It may seem odd to talk about authenticity in nearly the same breath as marketing. But that's the Pawlenty problem: he tries so hard to make the case for his authenticity that he can sound, well, inauthentic.
A case in point was Pawlenty's early effort to introduce himself with a dramatic online video in January. In the clip, Pawlenty speaks about American greatness and "putting our heads down and getting it done" over quick-cut images of a moon landing, Martin Luther King, soaring fighter jets and the lower Manhattan skyline, all to a sound track of swelling strings and booming sound effects. It felt like a blockbuster movie trailer with Steve Carell playing the lead.
If Pawlenty projects an exaggerated air of confidence, perhaps it's to make up for a certain lack of gravitas. This is a man whose first professional goal was to be a dentist. Who as governor grew out his sideburns in part as a tribute to the character of Ricky Bobby from the Will Ferrell comedy Talladega Nights. Who once told a Minnesotan who'd asked if he was the governor that he was in fact the Channel 4 weatherman. (He could pass for one.) And who, during a 2001 statehouse baseball game, yanked down the pants of his buddy Steve Sviggum, then the statehouse speaker. "The governor was a prankster," Sviggum says.
Self-important he is not. Pawlenty jokes that when he first announced he was running for governor to replace pro wrestler turned politician Jesse Ventura, his young daughters' friends were thrilled but not about him: "Can you get us Jesse Ventura's autograph?" they asked.
And when I ask Pawlenty, during a second interview in Des Moines, Iowa, exactly when he decided he was up to the grand challenge of the presidency, he answers in less than grandiose terms, explaining how he'd set up a political-action committee in 2009. I try again, saying I am curious about when he first imagined himself worthy of the history books, ready to send soldiers to their deaths and endure the national stage's harsh toll. "I don't know," he replies. "I wish I had a good answer for you on that." Pawlenty says it is not an idea that crossed his mind 15 or 20 years ago but that as he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor, he felt obliged not to take the easy path and "go make some money and play hockey and drink beer." He adds that he almost didn't run at all. "Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call," he says, mentioning his wife of 24 years. He adds with a laugh, "It could have gone the other way for all the reasons you're suggesting."