Pawlenty Makes GOP Bid Official: Is He Too Nice for His Own Good?

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is a conservative without the snarl. Will restless Republican voters ever notice him?

  • Photograph by Andrew Cutraro / Redux for TIME

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    Pawlenty will also have to explain to conservatives his stint of activism on global warming, which in 2007 he called "one of the most important [issues] of our time." He signed bills promoting clean energy and a cap-and-trade system of carbon limits similar to the model envisioned by Obama. He toured the state with the Minnesota-based Arctic explorer Will Steger to "convince the skeptics," as he put it, and even considered visiting the Arctic. He made a 2008 radio ad urging Congress to "cap greenhouse-gas pollution now!" But he now takes it all back, saying the human impact on climate change is unproven. "It was a mistake, and I'm sorry," Pawlenty said in a May 6 Fox News debate, leaving it to others to judge whether his mind was changed by the science or by growing skepticism among Republicans.

    For Pawlenty, these blemishes are less important than his professed ability to win in places where other Republicans cannot. "I got elected and re-elected in a blue state as a movement conservative," Pawlenty told me, adding that he could tilt states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Florida back into the red. This too oversimplifies the record. Pawlenty was no electoral Kirby Puckett. He won both his statewide races with less than 50% of the vote. He was barely re-elected, by 21,000 votes, in 2006. In each race, the presence of a third-party candidate likely fractured the state's mostly Democratic voters to his advantage. "I'm quite confident that Pawlenty would not have been elected if it was a straight-up vote between a Democrat and a Republican," says the University of Minnesota's Jacobs. Last fall, Pawlenty's handpicked GOP successor, for whom he campaigned, was defeated. And at least one recent poll has shown Pawlenty running behind Obama in the state, calling into question whether he could really deliver Minnesota's 10 electoral votes to the GOP next November.

    Too Nice to Win?
    In close quarters, Pawlenty is a skilled retail performer. But he's still far from an electrifying speaker. "If you looked up boring in the dictionary," comedian Seth Meyers cracked at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in April, "that'd be more exciting than listening to Tim Pawlenty." During a long riff on entitlement reform in Adel, Pawlenty sensed correctly that he might be losing his audience: "I know some of you just had supper and so you might be dozing off on me. I need you to stay with me here," he said.

    At times he overcompensates. Before larger crowds, Pawlenty speaks with an urgent inflection that sounds unnatural to some longtime observers; some even detected mysterious hints of a Southern accent during a February address he gave in Iowa. (His advisers say anyone new to the national stage needs time to find his voice.)

    He has also amped up his rhetoric. Pawlenty calls Obama's 2009 health care reform law "one of the worst pieces of legislation passed in the modern history of the country" and has defended the (overblown) warnings about "death panels" in the health law, describing opponents' fears as "not irrational." In a recent interview with the comedian Dennis Miller, he cracked that Obama, who he says is "in over his head" on national security, might want to wear adult diapers to his intelligence briefings. "He's been giving away the best thing he's got going for him, and that is his genuine nice nature," says an aide to a rival GOP candidate. "There really is nothing worse than seeing a guy feigning anger at these Tea Party rallies."

    Pawlenty may be spooked in part by a fellow Minnesotan: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, whose fiery brand of conservatism could steal the show in Iowa, where Pawlenty needs a strong showing to catapult him into subsequent primary states. "Bachmann's going to be a pain in the ass in Iowa," says Pawlenty's friend and former chief of staff Charlie Weaver.

    Still, there's only so far Pawlenty can force it. At the tax-day rally in Concord, the audience cheered Pawlenty's list of what he said were Obama's broken campaign promises as well as his stock wisecracks about the President's cult of celebrity ("He's proven that someone can deserve a Nobel Prize less than Al Gore"). But his reception was topped by the hoots and hollers that greeted pizza mogul Herman Cain's outrageous one-liners.

    Ultimately, Pawlenty may be too darn nice for the in-your-face politics his party's base craves. In his 2006 re-election race, he described himself as the "nice guy" running against a "street fighter," but Tea Party activists of this cycle are likely to wish it were the other way around. He declined to criticize two potential rivals at a recent debate on the grounds that they weren't there to defend themselves. When he bashes Obama's policies, he often prefaces his criticisms by saying, "With all due respect to President Obama ..." And while friends insist he's a fierce competitor, it's all relative: "Don't take him on in foosball," says Sviggum. "You will lose."

    Pawlenty rejects the idea that he lacks toughness: "Usually the biggest mouths and the people who try to draw the most attention to themselves are actually some of the weakest." His record in Minnesota could do the talking, he said. "Other people can talk about being tough, but I've actually done it. And it isn't about being the craziest, loudest, most celebrity-oriented person. It's about whether you have the courage not just to talk but to get things done and stand in the gap and get results. And that's what I've done."

    The Alternative to Romney?
    Of course, the man Pawlenty needs to overtake to win the nomination — Mitt Romney — is hardly a savage political warrior himself. And while elements of Pawlenty's record may give conservatives pause, nothing is likely to cause him the kind of grief Romney is suffering for the health care bill he signed as Massachusetts governor, which many Republicans consider an unforgivable precursor to Obamacare. Knocking off Romney, in other words, might be less about toughness than about being the most plausible alternative if Republicans decide they can't stomach the titular front runner. (Huntsman, another possible alternative, has a record riddled with conservative heresies. And Gingrich's debut this month has been a p.r. fiasco.) But to get to that point, Pawlenty has to find a way to make himself heard — without compromising his vaunted Joe Six-Pack authenticity.

    His advisers hope that can happen naturally. "He gets ripped for not being Mr. Charisma," says Weaver. "But what you see is what you get. I think that's what voters want these days. They might be willing to sacrifice a little glitz for someone who's real and can accomplish things." And if Republicans don't insist on a street-fighting candidate, it's always possible that the nicest guy will finish first.

    This article originally appeared in the May 30, 2011, issue of TIME.

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