Pawlenty faces wide GOP field for prez

Published 10:30 am Monday, April 26, 2010

Tim Pawlenty drew cheers with buzzwords conservatives love: limited government, individual responsibility, free markets. Sarah Palin got a roar from the same crowd by explicitly thanking “tea party Americans” for a movement “sweeping across our country.”

Two speeches, two styles, one stage for a pair of possible presidential candidates.

But at that April rally before 10,000 people, Pawlenty was relegated to warmup duty, and was out of the picture before Palin took the stage. And it wasn’t the only cameo by the Minnesota governor as bigger-name Republicans — and potential 2012 rivals — tromp through his turf.

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Aside from the former Alaska governor, Pawlenty has played the polite host to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney this year. And he’s the undercard for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee when he swings by tonight.

The joint appearances put Pawlenty in an odd spot. He’s struggling to escape the large shadow cast by other White House hopefuls, but he’s got something to gain by being seen with or mentioned alongside the party’s established players.

Pawlenty says he’s not worried about being overshadowed.

“These are my friends. I know them well. We’ve served together as governors. We know each other from previous occasions, events and circumstances,” he said Thursday. “So I welcome them to Minnesota and enjoy seeing them in each case.”

Pawlenty, whose term ends in January, says he won’t decide on a presidential campaign until after the midterm elections. But he’s been laying the foundation with extensive travel, a national fundraising operation and assistance to GOP candidates around the country.

Political analysts and strategists say that snubbing the political visitors would draw negative attention for Pawlenty and that he needs all the exposure he can get — even if it means ceding the spotlight to a possible foe.

Presidential scholar Cary Covington said it serves Pawlenty to appeal to the same audiences as others with White House designs.

The out-of-town politicians went different routes: Barbour keynoted a dinner for party insiders and donors; Palin’s rally was filled with self-identified tea party members; Romney spoke to a more buttoned-down audience assembled by a fiscally conservative group; Huckabee’s speech is to values voters.

“You get recognition with them and their supporters hear you and see you,” said Covington, a University of Iowa professor. But, he added: “What he has to do is make an impression away from Minnesota. Particularly Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire.”

Since ruling out a re-election campaign last year, Pawlenty has been the featured guest at Republican gatherings in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Texas and other places.

But he’s barely registered in early preference polls among Republican faithful, drawing single-digit support during this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee and Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw ballots.

While Pawlenty’s typically been on hand as his big rivals passed through, that hasn’t happened as often elsewhere.

Huckabee wasn’t there when Pawlenty addressed a Republican Party gala in Little Rock last summer, nor did Huckabee show up at an Arkansas GOP fundraiser in February featuring Palin.

In early 2009, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was mentioned as a possible 2012 contender, Romney lent his name to a Boston fundraiser for him but didn’t appear in person. Jindal has since denied interest in running.

If there are brewing rivalries, they haven’t been evident at the Minnesota events.

Pawlenty was one of the finalists for the Republican vice presidential nomination that went to Palin in 2008. His only nod to her at the Minneapolis rally was when he described her as one of “the nation’s great leaders.” Palin didn’t say a word about Pawlenty.

Appearing with Romney two days later at a swank suburban hotel, Pawlenty dished out praise to “my friend,” calling him a wise and effective leader and joking about their common struggle with hair styles.

“We’ve got the helmet and the mullet working together on behalf of the conservative cause,” Pawlenty teased.

Unlike most speeches lately, Pawlenty barely touched on health care that day. In other settings, he’s criticized a Massachusetts law that has drawn comparison to the new federal law for requiring people to buy health insurance or face penalties.

Romney was equally effusive about Pawlenty.

If he runs, Pawlenty can’t count on home-state loyalty. Even Republican voters who like him as governor say they wouldn’t necessarily back him for president.

“I don’t know that he’s conservative enough for me,” said Pat Turonie of Cloquet, who was in the Palin audience. “I’m not going to throw my support toward Pawlenty if there is someone else who is more conservative. He’s got to earn our vote.”