Handicapping the Veepstakes: Tim Pawlenty Makes More Sense Than You Might Think

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Jim Young / Reuters

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and his wife Mary wait to go onstage at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, Iowa, August 13, 2011.

Part 5 of our ongoing series. Also see our analyses of Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie.
The candidate: Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota

The bio: Pawlenty’s life story formed the narrative core of his ill-fated presidential run last year. Pawlenty was born into a pro-union household in a working-class enclave of South St. Paul. His father was a truck driver who served stints at a meatpacking plant; his mother died of cancer when Pawlenty was a teenager. The first in his family to attend college, Pawlenty put himself through the University of Minnesota by working in a grocery store. Spurred by his wife, Pawlenty became an Evangelical Christian and worked as a lawyer before launching his career in Minnesota politics. He flirted with running for the U.S. Senate in 2002, but acceded to the wishes of party elders, who preferred Norm Coleman, and ultimately mounted a successful gubernatorial bid instead. Though they were not without blemishes in the eyes of some Republicans — Pawlenty supported a version of cap-and-trade, and drew criticism for budgeting gimmickry — his two terms as the conservative governor of a left-leaning state landed him on John McCain’s short list in 2008. He was a popular dark horse pick for the Republican nomination in 2012, but his candidacy, which was predicated on a strong finish in neighboring Iowa, was undercut by Michele Bachmann’s brief surge and he bowed out after a lackluster finish in the Ames straw poll last August.

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The case for: Republican insiders say the first priority in selecting a running mate is to “do no harm.” Nobody embodies that mantra better than Pawlenty. He’s not an electrifying politician, but some of the traits that hamstrung him in the primary could be assets for him as Romney’s No. 2. The Minnesotan is steady and stolid, a reliable surrogate whom Romney could count on to skewer Obama without snarling. Likeable and funny, Pawlenty has governing experience, a bootstraps biography and an authentic middle-class mien that could make him a helpful envoy to blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt battlegrounds where Romney has struggled. “Every candidate I know tries to establish some roots in what I call real-world middle America. A lot of them have to invent it. With Tim Pawlenty, it’s real,” Vin Weber, who backed Pawlenty’s presidential bid before becoming an adviser to Romney, told TIME’s Michael Crowley last year. He would be viewed an acceptable choice for Chamber of Commerce conservatives as well as Tea Partyers and Evangelicals.

As a runner-up to Sarah Palin for a slot on the GOP ticket in 2008, Pawlenty has already been vetted. “In any normal year, Tim Pawlenty’s a great pick, a no-brainer,” strategist Steve Schmidt told McCain. Four years ago, McCain felt he needed a spark to compete against Obama’s historic campaign. This time around, with Obama vulnerable and early polls presaging a tight contest, many Republican insiders say Romney should play it safe. Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney shortly after dropping out the race last summer and has served as the campaign’s national co-chair, is as safe as they come. And while Beltway handicappers are placing their bets on Ohio Senator Rob Portman, Pawlenty is a Midwesterner with more blue-collar appeal and without the baggage of Bush Administration ties.

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The case against: A Romney-Pawlenty ticket would be soporific: a couple of middle-aged white guys without pizzazz. The latter’s presidential bid contained only one memorable moment, and it was a milquetoast one: in a debate, Pawlenty declined to defend his “Obamneycare” slogan that linked Romney’s health care overhaul to the President’s. Despite twice winning election in blue Minnesota, Pawlenty probably wouldn’t put the state in play for Romney (he barely eked out those victories himself). Unlike others likely to be on Romney’s short list, Pawlenty’s not a national figure. He’s not a woman or a minority. He doesn’t have a fervent Tea Party following or a reputation as a fiscal turnaround artist. All of which is why Pawlenty has been relegated to the second or third tier in most handicapping exercises. At 2.2%, he’s only the 12th most likely contender according to the prediction market InTrade.

But the Romney campaign, Republicans insiders believe, isn’t looking for a star turn. Their theory is that Romney needs a conservative stalwart who would be broadly acceptable and amplify the campaign’s themes without overshadowing the nominee. After being burned in 2008 when McCain opted for flash, the GOP has embraced boring. If this is the metric by which a pick will be judged, Pawlenty’s low-key style is an asset, not a deterrent. He may be the bridesmaid once again, but he has fewer blemishes than just about anyone out there.

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