Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is many things that Mitt Romney isn't
A loyal surrogate, Pawlenty told an Ohio crowd, "President Obama is all foam and no beer"
Pawlenty is almost disdainful of politicians who don't relate to ordinary folks
Pawlenty's pros and cons: Blue-collar background but no signature achievement in office
Editor’s Note: The 2012 presidential race is John King’s seventh campaign. With presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney set to pick his running mate in the coming days, CNN’s chief national correspondent looks at those believed to be in the running to be his potential vice president. On Thursday, King profiles Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
Tim Pawlenty remembers the late nights in 2008, working with his wife, Mary, to pull together all the documents John McCain’s campaign requested as it vetted potential running mates.
“No staff. Only us,” Pawlenty wrote in his book, “Courage to Stand.” “I remember the two of us joking one night at some inhumane hour, ‘No way Mitt Romney is doing this by himself.’ “
Four years later, he laughs at the memory – and the second time around.
“Well, we don’t talk about the vetting process in the Romney campaign,” the former Minnesota governor told CNN in a recent interview. “But, in general, I’ve been through this before, and when you’ve done something before, it’s easier to be more casual about it the second time. But I don’t want to say it is no big deal. … It just comes a bit easier.”
A bit easier. But still a big deal.
And put Pawlenty high on the short list of Republicans more anxious than most as they await the decision.
In the early days of the 2012 campaign, Pawlenty generated headlines – and drew the ire of Romney – by using the term “Obamneycare” to suggest there was no difference between the health care plans of the Democratic president and the former Massachusetts governor.
Now though Pawlenty is a short-list contender to share the ticket with Romney – in part because he is in some ways very much like Romney. But perhaps more so because he is so many things the GOP’s presumptive nominee is not.
Atop that “anti-Romney” list are Pawlenty’s blue-collar roots, which put him at ease in many settings in which Romney can appear awkward or unfamiliar.
Places such as Dayton’s Dublin Pub.
“President Obama is all foam and no beer,” Pawlenty tells a modest crowd during a recent visit, his way of suggesting the incumbent’s actions have not matched his lofty promises and rhetoric.
Like any of the candidates on Romney’s short list, there are pros and cons.
For Pawlenty, the plus side begins with an upbringing on the streets, and ice rinks, of South St. Paul, Minnesota. Romney’s dad was an auto executive and then a big state governor; Pawlenty’s was a truck driver.
“The dominant focus economically for the town back in the ’60s and ‘70s were these mammoth meatpacking plants,” Pawlenty told CNN. “They all suddenly shut down, and as a young boy I saw this massive job loss, economic dislocation and heartache. … It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to have lived it and experienced it.”
The Pawlenty biography is compelling at a time when Obama and Romney spar for support among middle-class independents.
“My dad was an electrician,” Pawlenty childhood friend Paul Voight told CNN in an interview in a classroom he recalled as the place Pawlenty learned high school biology. (“Tried to learn” is Pawlenty’s memory.)
“We had a neighbor who was a painter,” Voight said in describing their childhood neighborhood. “One who worked in a factory making cans, I think. One was a bricklayer. One was a mailman. Tim’s dad was a truck driver for many years.”
A good student, prankster and hard worker
His childhood friends, who describe themselves now as independents from a strong Democratic area, recall Pawlenty as a good student, occasional prankster and hard worker, whether trying to improve his hockey skills or earn a few bucks.
“He woke up in the morning and delivered papers before school,” Voight told us. “He bagged groceries to get through college. He’s been working hard for a long time.”
When the meatpacking plants were humming, there was a good feel, high school classmate LaVern Meyer remembers.
“Everybody worked hard in this community. Everybody lived moderately but not excessively.”
In one snapshot into how Pawlenty is a little different, Meyer tells the story of time spent at the modest Pawlenty family cabin.
“Me and Tim we’re going out fishing,” Meyer said. “Well, Tim put the motor on the boat and we went out. Well, the motor fell off in the lake. Tim’s dad wasn’t so happy.”
Pawlenty laughs at the memory. And then volunteers the rest of the story.
“There were girls across the lake at a camp,” he says with a laugh. “That’s where we were trying to go.”
Like him or not, it is clear he is comfortable in his skin – and almost disdainful of politicians who do not – cannot – relate to more ordinary folks.
“You have to have some fun and enjoy it along the way,” Pawlenty told me.
To him, that means grabbing a scoop and an empty cone when posing with the workers at an Ohio dairy, or dropping to his knees to take a picture with two young girls, and quickly instructing them to use their fingers to make “rabbit ears” over his head.
Most people at such stops are local Republicans there at the party’s request. Pawlenty made a point of spending a few minutes with the girls and their father.
“Look, politicians are too serious sometimes and not just in staged events,” he told CNN. “But with real people like that gentleman – he was a former Marine, a firefighter now out with his two young daughters today, he wasn’t asked to come here. A real person doing real things, and it’s nice to interact with them.”
When it is suggested that Romney might not have been as loose and chatty, Pawlenty shrugged and said: “Well, everybody has a different style and different styles can work. If you study leadership and service throughout history, there’s not one style that works for everybody. … It’s not a formula. It’s part art and part science.”
Pawlenty’s critics call it mostly acting.
“Tim Pawlenty’s record, and my experience here has proven, that Tim Pawlenty is frankly about Tim Pawlenty,” R.T. Rybak, the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, said recently. “Tim Pawlenty hasn’t shown the ability frankly to get anything done in government.”
Pawlenty’s former chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, takes issue and makes the case that adding Pawlenty to the ticket would give Romney a partner prepared for the big challenges in Washington.
“By the time he left, I think the average increase in state spending over his eight years was 1%,” Weaver told CNN. “He consistently balanced the budget. And he dealt with a Democrat legislature for much of his term.”
Pawlenty’s pros and cons
So the plus side?
• Blue-collar roots
• A Catholic-turned-evangelical Protestant comfortable talking about his faith.
• A GOP governor from a blue state who had to do business with Democrats.
• A record holding the line on government spending.
• No Washington baggage.
“He’s interesting. He’s funny. He is thoughtful and he is measured,” Weaver said. “He is great with people. He is authentic. I think it’s probably the best reason why he would be a terrific vice president.”
And the downside?
• No Washington baggage also means no Washington experience, including on major national security issues.
• He never cracked 50% in either of his gubernatorial wins, and even his friends say it is doubtful picking Pawlenty would put Minnesota in play this fall.
• His 2012 presidential run sputtered quickly.
• Even some conservative fans say there is no signature Pawlenty achievement that would bring something unique to the ticket. The governor’s Democratic critics say that is because his trademark is caution born of ambition.
“People thought he could be a breakthrough figure who could bring moderate voices and different sides together,” Rybak said. “He got into office and became deeply partisan, unable to get much done, and in his case spent most of his time running for national office.”
At a picnic table outside the dairy in Ohio, we ran through Rybak’s long list of criticisms. Pawlenty’s response?
“Well, Mayor Rybak is of course a spokesman for the Obama campaign so I would expect nothing less of him,” Pawlenty said. “We brought spending down to historic levels, we cut taxes, we got performance pay for teachers, we did pension reform for public employees before it was cool and the popular thing to do, we moved toward consumer-based and market-based heath care instead of an Obama care-style approach and more. So to look at that and say we didn’t do anything just isn’t accurate.”
It is clear he is campaigning hard for a slot on the ticket, and he answers quickly when asked if a two-term governor would have a hard time being a No. 2 instead of the CEO.
“No, I don’t think so. You know I don’t buy that at all,” Pawlenty said. “I think everybody needs to look in the mirror and say, ‘If you believe this country is in trouble, and we need a different president, what can I do to help the team and get this thing back on track?’ “
Pawlenty said he is happy to help as a surrogate and campaign volunteer. But it’s more than clear, he’d be happier sharing the ticket.