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Biography as a Platform
Of course, appearing hyperambitious for the presidency can be a liability. And in a sense, the presidential circus first came to Pawlenty, not the other way around. He may have gotten the White House bug in the summer of 2008, when his name was floated as a potential running mate for John McCain. The speculation put Pawlenty on the national radar. And although McCain, looking to shake up the race, chose Palin instead, the logic for Pawlenty was compelling: he was an articulate conservative from a region where Republicans have lost their electoral grip (and was said to have that quality so crucial in a running mate: a skeleton-free closet).
The McCain team was also drawn to Pawlenty's life story, which could have helped confound the image of Republicans as the party of the privileged. Pawlenty has long argued that the GOP must remind Americans that they're "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." He grew up in South St. Paul, a blue collar town fragrant from the nearby stockyards and meatpacking plants. He was one of five siblings in a pro-union Catholic family. His father, Eugene Pawlenty the name is Polish was a truck driver who worked side jobs on weekends. (Including one cleaning meat hooks: "I tossed my cookies" at the stench when helping out one weekend, Pawlenty has recalled.)
In the 1970s, the meatpacking jobs dried up; his father would eventually lose his. Worse, Pawlenty's mother succumbed to ovarian cancer when he was just 16. On her deathbed, she insisted that Tim be the first in the family to attend college. He put himself through the University of Minnesota by working in a grocery store.
That story is crucial to Pawlenty's appeal, his supporters argue. "The guy has a genuine connection to average people," says his friend Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman from Minnesota. "Every candidate I know tries to establish some roots in what I call real-world middle America. A lot of them have to invent it. With Tim Pawlenty, it's real. He is not a person who has lost his connection to the working-class folks he grew up with."
Inspired by Ronald Reagan, Pawlenty gravitated to politics in college, volunteering with the College Republicans. He went on to law school, where he met Mary, a graduate of a Christian college who would eventually convert him to Evangelicalism. Meanwhile, he climbed the local political ladder, managing a winning 1988 GOP Senate campaign and getting elected to the state legislature, where he became the GOP leader before his 2002 bid for governor.
Pawlenty likes to boast that he, more than any other candidate, will run on his record. It's a none-too-subtle contrast with Romney, who isn't exactly putting his Massachusetts health care reform front and center. And it's true that Pawlenty governed as a conservative in the state that produced Walter Mondale and that hasn't voted Republican for President since 1972. "He managed to take the anger the snarl, if you will out of the hard-core social and economic extremist-conservative agenda," says Dane Smith, a former reporter who covered Pawlenty for years.
As governor, Pawlenty brought a return to normality and a conservative style. He removed from the governor's mansion a portrait of Ventura in knight's armor on a white horse and replaced it with one of an old man praying, and he imported his foosball table from home. Ventura had left behind a $4.5 billion deficit, which Pawlenty closed not by raising taxes (which he would slash by $800 million over the course of his term) but by dramatically slowing spending. He vetoed dozens of Democratic tax-hike bills, and in 2005 he allowed a nine-day state-government shutdown rather than give in to the Democrats' budget demands.
He also picked fights with the liberal establishment. In 2005, Pawlenty set out to cut the generous pension benefits of the state's mass-transit workers' union, triggering a 44-day strike before the union cried uncle. "Pawlenty ought to be getting extra credit for having faced down public-employee unions ... before it was cool," one National Review writer recently noted. On social issues, Pawlenty approved tough new abortion restrictions and gave local school boards the freedom to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Says Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of politics at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs: "Pawlenty is probably the most conservative governor in Minnesota's history."
To Pawlenty, there's no higher compliment. And, he adds, "if we can do it in my state, we can do it anywhere."
A Little Help from Obama
A closer look reveals a more complicated story. Critics say Pawlenty used accounting shortcuts, like postponing spending and accelerating revenue collection, to balance budgets. Today, Minnesota is struggling with a projected budget deficit of $5 billion, which some blame on Pawlenty. "I don't think any governor has left behind a worse financial mess than he has," says Arne Carlson, a Republican who was Minnesota's governor from 1991 to 1999.
Not my fault, Pawlenty replies, blaming the recession, Democratic spending habits and a state supreme court ruling that restored $2.7 billion he'd slashed from the budget by fiat in 2009. (The ruling, written by a chief justice whom Pawlenty appointed, found that the unilateral cut had exceeded the governor's authority.) But he tends not to mention the help he got from nonconservative sources including more than $2 billion from an Obama stimulus bill that he has trashed as "largely wasted" and a 75 cents cigarette-tax hike he swallowed to end that 2005 budget shutdown. "That was disappointing," says Grover Norquist, the president of the antitax group Americans for Tax Reform (who adds that Pawlenty "did a good job" overall on fiscal issues.)