The Americans for Prosperity presidential forum in Manchester, N.H., on Friday night, was notable mostly for the debut of one of the more interesting subplots in the 2012 presidential race: Tim Pawlenty's challenge to Mitt Romney for the center of the Republican party. So let's forget for a moment the partisan red-meat offered by fringier candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and ex-Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and focus exclusively on the T-Paw-Romney dynamic. The battlegrounds forthe two ex-guvs are class, style, gravitas, and, in Iowa at least, level of commitment to the conservative social agenda. Friday's forum was nothing more than a sneak preview. Neither man was completely on top of his game, but the battle lines were visible.
Pawlenty's calling card is his humble background, having lost his mother at a young age while his father struggled to support the family, and his identification with working-class voters. When describing his values, he sounds like a Joe Biden Democrat. His references to "Sam's Club Republicans," people who are struggling to stretch their budgets, are part of his basic political schtick but might as well be directed at the wealthy, perfectly groomed Romney, who circulates best among country-club Republicans.
Pawlenty casts himself as more of a straight-shooter than Romney, and on Friday he gleefully jumped on an opportunity to repudiate his pastsupport of a "cap-and-trade" plan to prevent global warming: "It was a mistake, it was stupid, and I'm sorry." He might as well have declared: "This isn't one of those parsed non-answers that you'll get from Romney." But despite his two terms in the Minnesota state house, Pawlenty is well behind Romney in one area: gravitas. Having run for president in 2008, Romney is a recognized brand, not beloved, but at least vetted and generally found acceptable for the White House. Pawlenty is trying to convey an earthier authenticity. And behind his somewhat manic presentation were shards of the boyish charisma that his Minnesota devotees insist is there. But for now, it's hidden behind some of the frost-belt loopiness that made Walter Mondale seem like a visitor from a Saturday-night polka party, and should be familiar to anyone who watched "Fargo." Pawlenty needs to get the Coen brothers out of his system.
Pawlenty, at least, has been pounding the trail, trying to iron out his presentation. Romney has been operating behind the scenes, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce himself. But his appearance on Friday was more of a cameo than a debut, as if someone had spotted him in the lounge and waved him up to the podium to offer a few one-liners about President Obama. Tanned, and with an open-collar look suggestive of various sunny vacation spots (Pawlenty wore an almost deliberately drab politician-suit), Romney sought to appear rested and ready. And his front-runner's ploy of focusing on Obama rather than himself or his rivals was probably a shrewd choice. But he gummed it up with an accidental reference to "hanging" Obama ("metaphorically, of course") and his pasted-on grin seemed anything but relaxed.
Yet his answer to the inevitable question about his Massachusetts health plan was about the best that could be expected: A smiling reference to all the controversy about it, a sincere defense of its goals, an avowal to never attempt such a thing on the federal level, ending with a pledge to grant every state a waiver from Obamacare on his first day in office. And when asked about high gasoline costs he offered a mini-lesson on how to tame the futures markets and bring down prices, suggesting there's some substance beneath his somewhat oily presentation. Friday's forum was a round-one draw, but expect Pawlenty and Romney to be sparring for months.
Globe file photo: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at Friday night's Americans for Prosperity forum.