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Posted at 10:40 AM ET, 03/ 1/2011

Tim Pawlenty courts the tea party

By Rachel Weiner

Tim Pawlenty is making a major play for the tea party vote.

The latest gambit? A slickly-produced web video released Tuesday morning calling the movement a "welcome, helpful, energetic and forward-leaning organization."

The video features highlights from Pawlenty's speech at last weekend's Tea Party Patriots summit, where he beat out Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in a straw poll. Pawlenty came in second behind popular conservative talk show host Herman Cain. Paul came in third.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Pawlenty, Cain and Paul were the only prospective 2012 candidates to attend the Phoenix, Arizona event, attended by about 2,000 activists aligned with the burgeoning tea party movement. While the straw poll results have little predictive power, it's a sign that Pawlenty can win over this audience -- and is trying very hard to do just that.

Pawlenty's biggest obstacle in that courtship effort might be his lack of rhetorical fire. Pawlenty, often described as being "too nice" to be president, is competing with Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and possibly Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- all well-known for their ability to rouse a crowd through the use of red-meat rhetoric.

The mild-mannered Midwesterner has been raising the verbal stakes -- he recently called Obama "chicken", and at the Arizona summit he declared: "We will take our government back."

Pawlenty has also been staking out territory on hot-button issues. He proposed reversing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and has been quick to embrace Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his fight against public employee unions.

Pawlenty is also emphasizing his conservative governing record. "It's really important to look past the speeches and look at their records," said spokesman Alex Conant. The hope is that Pawlenty's "success as a conservative leader in a liberal state" will appeal to the tea party movement, Conant added

On some tea party issues, Pawlenty's history is mixed. He was supportive of some form of financial rescue, and it wasn't until recently that he began attacking the bailout. At the time, he never endorsed the Bush administration plan, but his statements were very cautious. Of the big bank bailouts, he said "it's an imperfect solution, but you also have to be pragmatic about getting the mess cleaned up." He now says he was merely speaking for his presidential candidate, John McCain. Pawlenty also initially supported cap-and-trade legislation, a position he now calls "stupid." Pawlenty didn't significantly lower taxes in Minnesota -- but in eight years (except for some cigarette fees) he never raised them, either. (Pawlenty did cut some taxes while governor, but it was his predecessor, Jesse Ventura, who made the big changes.)

Sal Russo, one of co-founders of the group Tea Party Express, says he thinks activists are open to Pawlenty as much as an other candidate. "I don't think he's very well-known within the tea party community," Russo said.

For Pawlenty, much depends on who else runs. If Palin or Bachmann get into the race, they will run as candidates from and for the tea party -- making Pawlenty's overtures to the movement more difficult.

If those two women stay out, however, there will be a chunk of tea party-aligned voters who are looking for a candidate. And he's doing everything he can at the moment to make sure they know he can be their guy.

By Rachel Weiner  | March 1, 2011; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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