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Posted at 4:23 PM ET, 03/ 1/2011

Tim Pawlenty: Nice guy with a tough record?

By Jennifer Rubin

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who spoke at the Tea Party Patriots' summit last weekend, is out with a new video praising the Tea Party.

I have a couple of observations.

First, any candidate who wants to capture the GOP presidential nomination is going to have to secure a broad base of support -- from Tea Partyers, Christian conservatives, Main Street Republicans, etc. Pawlenty is smart to appeal to the Tea Party without running down other segments of the party. That approach preserves his "nice" image -- and there's no point in being the divider in the race.

Second, Pawlenty's rap has been that he is rhetorically less than stellar. In his speech earlier in the year at the National Press Club, voters have seen a more muscular delivery from him. But frankly, his voice quality in the video is a bit screechy, and he'll have to find a comfortable tone to use on the stump.

There is a way to show "toughness" other than in speeches, however. Unlike Newt Gingrich, and to a large extent Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has a record of standing up to Democrats and to labor unions (which are much on the mind of conservatives these days).

In his campaign book (written and published well before the Wisconsin labor standoff), he details his confrontation as governor with the transit workers, who went on strike for 44 days. He recounts that under a previous governor, the union had negotiated lifetime health benefits for any employee who worked in the transit system for 15 years, even if that employee went on to work elsewhere. Pawlenty writes of the Metropolitan Council that runs the bus and light rail system: "In 2002, it was facing hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded liability because of this extraordinary benefit, and that liability was growing rapidly." He wanted to rein in those obligations, and it was clear the Twin Cities were headed for a strike.The horror stories mounted about possible "doomsday scenarios," as Pawlenty's book dubs them. Pawlenty held firm in negotiations, the scenarios never emerged, and Pawlenty made the case to voters that they didn't have luxurious benefits like the transit workers. Eventually the workers came back and lifetime health care was ended for new hires.

Intrigued by this now familiar-sounding incident (which neither Pawlenty nor the press has talked much about), I called Brian McClung, Pawlenty's former spokesman and deputy chief of staff. He remains close to the former governor. McClung recalled that the pressure to avoid a strike was intense. He told me that the local news outlets "covered it like it was Y2K" and predicted "the streets would be mayhem, cars would be flying, there'd be blood flowing down the highway." He also recalled some very raucous demonstrations, including some right outside the governor's house. McClung chuckled: "There was one banner, 'Tim Pawlenty is a weapon of mass transit destruction.'"

Pawlenty's book also recounts his standoff with the legislature, which resulted in a nine-day partial shutdown of the government in 2005. Pawlenty explains that the state was facing a $4-billion deficit, which the Democratic-controlled state senate wanted to fill with a tax hike. Pawlenty refused. The legislature reached the end of its session with significant areas of state government yet to be funded. Pawlenty prevailed on much of his agenda, including a merit-based teachers' compensation plan. He turned back the tax hike, but did relent on a cigarette "fee," designated to pay for smokers' health-care costs. (Looking back, Pawlenty writes in his book that he regrets agreeing even to the cigarette fee.)

McClung said that the lesson from these episodes is that you "have to stay strong and battle through" confrontations. That's not a bad campaign message, especially in light of recent events.

Pawlenty is unlikely to project a personality as tough and aggressive as New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie (R). Maybe he shouldn't try, and should, instead, stick to a voice and tone that is comfortable for him. If his record is as good as he and his supporters think it is, maybe it's better to show voters what he's done rather than tell (or holler at) them. But then the campaign is just beginning.

By Jennifer Rubin  | March 1, 2011; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  2012 campaign  
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Pawlenty and crickets...

Posted by: danw1 | March 1, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

We lived in the Twin Cities for four years in the 1990s; I found the politics fascinating and joined the Center for the American Experiment, the state’s conservative think tank. (I was a dues-paying member, not a compensated thinker.)

Pawlenty won a hard-fought battle in the Republican gubernatorial primary, then prevailed in a three-way general election. His political skills are well-honed and during his second term, which he won in a squeaker, he bamboozled the Democrat- (called Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party up there)- dominated legislature on several issues, eventually winning a battle over his authority to allotment budgetary items be getting the legislature to agree with his cuts.

My only real complaint with him is over ethanol, he’s a big booster of the durn stuff. Many conservatives will not like that.

Posted by: SCMike1 | March 1, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

JR writes: "...That approach preserves his "nice" image -- and there's no point in being the divider in the race...."

In my lifetime, Ronald Reagan had the "nicest" image, IMO, of all the presidents I've seen. There's nothing wrong with "nice" but what lies behind the public image is what is important. Pawlenty has some chops, and I'm interested to see more of him. Some of my wife's family are from Minnesota, and recently I inquired of them what they thought. They were positive, but not wildly enthusiastic. They thought he had done a good job.

That, from the family of a MN state employee (and public union member) is encouraging. I'm looking forward to the Republican primary.

Posted by: jafco | March 1, 2011 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Tol’ ya I weren’t no compensated thinker. What I meant to write was that he eventually won a battle over his authority to non-allot budgetary line-items by getting the legislature to agree with his cuts. He snookered them, forced them into a corner, quite the clever maneuver.

Posted by: SCMike1 | March 1, 2011 7:54 PM | Report abuse

He needs to really stock up on the Iowa-Minnesota jokes for his stump speech arsenal, straighten up his posture, perhaps grow a small beard to boost his manQ, and lay in a big supply of tea with honey to avoid any unseemly "gravely" hoarse-whispering incidents on the trail. Silence for the last three days marathon is permitted, but anything before is poisonous to his chances. And wear lifts in his shoes from now on, plus heavy lift 3 hours/week, with extra protein, creatine, glutamine, beta-alanine. Most important, stock up on the jokes, and maybe hit Judge Alan Page for an endorsement, unless that's a conflict-of-interest.

Posted by: aardunza | March 1, 2011 8:04 PM | Report abuse

I lived for 8 years in Tim Pawlenty's Minnesota. It wasn't pretty. Governor Bridge Collapse entered office with a budget surplus and a smoothly functioning state government. He left us with a massive deficit and the administrative operations of many departments in tatters.

The "nice guy image" is pure PR. Pawlenty's incompetence is exceeded only by his personal unpleasantness. Think of Tim Pawlenty as Forrest Gump, but with a narcissistic personality and a nasty temper.

Posted by: mn3dem | March 2, 2011 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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