As the never-ending Senate race between former senator Norm Coleman (R) and entertainer Al Franken (D), one politician has emerged unsullied (so far) from the messy proceedings: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).
Pawlenty has been an increasingly frequent guest on various cable talk shows to discuss the race and his own stance toward it -- coming off as an affable but staunch defender of Coleman's right to continue his legal appeals despite his 312 vote deficit.
Last night Pawlenty appeared on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" to plead for patience in Minnesota while dodging the question of whether he would sign the election certificate for Franken if the state Supreme Court rules against Coleman's latest appeal.
"We just need more information as to evaluating this case," argued Pawlenty. "Some counties took a very strict view of what absentee ballots should be counted under the strict requirement of our laws, others were more lax about it."
It's hard to argue with Pawlenty's even-handed, just-the-facts-ma'am approach -- heck even Maddow acknowledged he was a "good sport" -- and, for those national GOP observers getting their first extended look at T-Paw, it's likely they will come away with a favorable impression.
But will Pawlenty's short-term gain as it relates to the Minnesota Senate imbroglio turn into long term pain?
Politico's Manu Raju made the case recently that the answer to that question is yes, noting that if Pawlenty refuses to sign the certificate formalizing Franken as the winner (assuming Coleman's state Supreme Court challenge comes up short) he risks the ire of an electorate he may well face in two years time for reelection, and, if he decides to sign it, he would likely anger conservative Republicans who might be far less willing to support a Pawlenty presidential bid in 2012 as a result.
All true -- especially considering that national Democrats are already ramping up the pressure on Pawlenty to call the race over after the state Supreme Court rules. "Governor Pawlenty has said that Minnesota is suffering from not having two Senators," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Eric Schultz. "Governor Pawlenty ought to make clear that if former Senator Coleman chooses to appeal the outcome of the contest in the state Supreme Court that this is the end of the road -- and that, consistent with the law, he will certify Al Franken the winner following that state court appeal."
But, much of that analysis hinges on the idea that Pawlenty is still leaning toward running for a third term -- a presumption with which we tend to disagree.
Those close to Pawlenty insist he is genuinely conflicted about whether or not to run again and won't make his mind up until early summer. And, we take them at their word.
That said, if Pawlenty wants to be a serious contender for president in 2012, it makes little sense for him to run for reelection as he narrowly escaped defeat in 2006 against a lackluster Democratic nominee (former state Attorney General Mike Hatch) and, given Minnesota's decided shift toward Democrats in recent elections, it's hard to imagine his odds at a third term would be any better than 50-50. A loss in 2010 would doom him for 2012 -- see: Allen, George.
Couple the real possibility of defeat with the fact that Pawlenty has a nearly non-existent political operation and it's even harder to see why he runs for reelection. As former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) demonstrated in the 2008 primaries, being out of office isn't necessarily a handicap when running for president, as it allows you to lavish time and attention on Iowa, New Hampshire and the like while building a staff and constructing policy positions full time.
Seen through the 2012-only lens, Pawlenty's current position looks more like a win-win.
Assuming he doesn't plan to run for reelection, Pawlenty can refuse to sign the election certificate for Franken -- if Coleman wants to take the legal fight federal -- and continue to raise his national profile by arguing (in his low key, inoffensive way) on a variety of televisions outlets that he is simply trying to ensure no legitimate votes are left uncounted, a GREAT issue for him in the eyes of GOP base voters.
And, if Coleman ends his appeal after if he loses at the state Supreme Court level, Pawlenty has seen his national profile raised as a defender of voters' rights without any serious backlash in the state.
"It's a net positive for him, especially nationally," said one senior Republican strategist. "He has a solid position: He has consistently said he wants to see the legal process completely played out to ensure no voter is disenfranchised and the actual winner is sent to DC."
To this point, Pawlenty has nicely played out a tricky political situation to his benefit, a deftness that speaks well of his potential as a national candidate in 2012.
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