Pawlenty, on stump in Iowa, takes sharp turn

Affable side is on back burner before key poll

Tim Pawlenty, in Adel, Iowa, yesterday, has said his national themes are consistent with his career-long conservatism. Of the harsh tone some find uncharacteristic, he said: ‘‘The country’s sinking and I’m not only concerned, I’m angry, mostly at Obama.’’ Tim Pawlenty, in Adel, Iowa, yesterday, has said his national themes are consistent with his career-long conservatism. Of the harsh tone some find uncharacteristic, he said: ‘‘The country’s sinking and I’m not only concerned, I’m angry, mostly at Obama.’’ (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / August 11, 2011

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DYERSVILLE, Iowa - Tim Pawlenty is not in Minnesota any more. Nice won’t win the Iowa caucuses next February, and so the former two-term governor of neighboring Minnesota has cranked up the sharp attacks on President Obama because this state will probably make or break his candidacy, maybe as soon as the Iowa straw poll this Saturday in Ames.

Pawlenty and his campaign acknowledge it will be a key test for a Republican presidential candidate who has solid conservative credentials but has lagged in the early measures of viability - fund-raising and polls. They have poured extensive resources into the effort, including plenty of advertising, and last Friday began eight days of barnstorming the Hawkeye State.

For a man some pundits have suggested is too bland to win the nomination, Pawlenty has developed a sharp rhetorical edge. Some longtime observers back home in Minnesota find it disquieting.

“He’s lost the mojo,’’ said professor Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “He’s always been conservative in his world view and instincts, but it seems like he’s reading polls and listening to consultants who say he has to be different to catch on with Tea Partiers or some other constituency.’’

As he courts the party’s conservative base, Pawlenty tears into Obama incessantly. At a stop last Friday in Dyersville, he reminded the audience, as he always does, that Obama’s work experience includes time as a community organizer. “He wasn’t up to the job’’ of president, Pawlenty said. During a swing through eastern Iowa last month, he likened the president to “a manure spreader in a windstorm.’’

The lines get applause from the gatherings of party faithful. Pawlenty’s attack message is that the diminished circumstances and expectations of his audience and the nation are the fault of Obama, Democrats, the federal government, and labor unions, in that order.

In Dyersville, he trashed the debt-ceiling deal, and called the federal budget “a Ponzi scheme.’’

“If they were in the private sector, they’d be indicted,’’ he declared of those responsible.

He repeatedly urges his audience to vote for him at the straw poll.

The event at Iowa State University is a quadrennial Iowa GOP fund-raising exercise but also an organizational test. By many accounts, Pawlenty is assembling a strong ground game. He has enlisted Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who played an important role in the 2008 caucus victory of her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

“We’ve got to show some progress,’’ Pawlenty said during an interview. “I don’t think we have to win the straw poll.’’ June polls had him back in the Iowa pack, far behind the leaders, including a fellow Minnesotan, Representative Michele Bachmann.

The great irony is that Pawlenty, a major figure in Minnesota politics, is threatened in Iowa by Bachmann, an agitating outsider for most of her stint in the state legislature before winning a seat in Congress in 2006. Embraced by Tea Party movement activists and religious conservatives who drive Republican caucus politics in Iowa, the gaffe-prone firebrand has outflanked and outshone Pawlenty on the right.

Pawlenty contrasts his achievements as an executive to what he has called Bachmann’s “nonexistent’’ accomplishments in Congress.

His strategy has always banked on a strong Iowa showing. Bachmann’s surge has pushed him beyond his natural comfort zone as a Reagan Republican. In the debate over the debt ceiling, Pawlenty joined Bachmann in taking an ultra-hard line against an increase. On the stump, his tone is stridently antigovernment. But this doesn’t square precisely with his approach in Minnesota, where government is a big part of the social fabric and Pawlenty’s efforts to reduce it were often at the margins, in part because Democrats held large majorities in both legislative chambers during his second term.

In a 2006 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he said: “The era of small government is over,’’ recalling the theme of a column by David Brooks of The New York Times. In the face of powerful private-sector interests, such as oil and pharmaceutical companies, “government has to be more proactive, more aggressive,’’ Pawlenty said. He had long battled both industries in an effort to allow cheaper prescription drugs to be imported from Canada and to expand the use of ethanol. (He now favors a phaseout of federal ethanol subsidies).

He is not selling that strain of economic populism any more.

“In Minnesota, he really spoke directly from his heart, which I would describe as thoughtful conservatism,’’ said Jacobs. “It’s kind of startling the extent to which he has kind of walked away from the smart conservative brand name that he had.’’

Pawlenty rejects that premise. His national themes are consistent with his career-long conservatism, and he says of the harsh tone some find uncharacteristic: “The country’s sinking and I’m not only concerned, I’m angry, mostly at Obama.’’

As governor, Pawlenty “passed all the likeability tests,’’ said Jay Kiedrowski, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “He never got mad, he’s very affable, and he was never mean-spirited.’’

Pawlenty, a Roman Catholic most of his life, is a member of an evangelical Christian congregation and a social conservative, firmly opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion rights (except in limited circumstances). But he is not a fire-breather who ignites the party’s base the way Bachmann and others do.

“The rival fortunes of Pawlenty and Bachmann speak not only to the changing politics of Minnesota but also of national politics in terms of the Republican Party,’’ said David A. Schultz, political science and election law professor at Hamline University in St. Paul.

As part of a deal to break a stalemate in 2005, Pawlenty supported a 75-cent-per-pack charge on cigarettes that raised more than $400 million over two years. Pawlenty called it a “health impact fee.’’ Just about everyone else called it a tax.

Critics and many neutral observers said Pawlenty’s budgets, which curbed spending and kept a lid on broad-based taxes, required accounting gimmicks and short-term borrowing to stay in balance, pushing the problem into the lap of his successor, Mark Dayton of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

The cigarette “fee’’ is the only major blemish on his hold-the-line record on taxes, Pawlenty is quick to acknowledge. “I have some clunkers in my record, but I admit mine.’’

He would put at the top of that list his advocacy for stringent environmental policies. He set ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the state, and signed an agreement with other governors to clear the way for a regionalized version of what would become a proposed federal cap-and-trade policy. Pawlenty at the time extolled the virtues of market forces that would allow industries to buy and sell pollution credits and said it could be a model for the nation.

Within two years, however, he had done a full U-turn on the issue, opposing cap and trade and all but disavowing any notion of man-made causes of global warming.

“The weight of the evidence is that most, if not all of it, is attributable to natural cycles,’’ Pawlenty said of global warming in an interview.

Another longtime Pawlenty watcher, political science professor Steven Schier of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said: “The party moved right, and he moved with them, pretty dramatically.’’ Similarly, Pawlenty in 2006 said Minnesota should consider an individual health-insurance mandate like that enacted under Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, which has contributed to a sharp drop in the number of Bay State residents without coverage. Pawlenty, however, has zinged Romney, calling last year’s national health care overhaul “ObamneyCare’’ (though he failed to follow up on that line of attack during a June debate) because it adopts many of the principles used by Massachusetts.

“We studied it, and we decided it was a bad idea,’’ he said.

His biography is an underpinning of his candidacy. The 50-year-old hockey enthusiast grew up in blue-collar South St. Paul, the son of a truck driver and a mother who died when he was 16. He is the first of his family to attend college. (He went on to law school, where he met his wife, Mary).

“His story is more interesting than his personality, which is a problem,’’ said Schier. Comparing Pawlenty to former Democratic vice president Walter Mondale, Schier said: “We have a long tradition of producing politicians who are capable people but don’t perform well in mass media.’’

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at