Always the Bridesmaid: What’s Next for Tim Pawlenty?

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Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty talks to voters at the Des Moines Register's Soapbox during the second day of the Iowa State Fair August 12, 2011 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Four years ago this month, Tim Pawlenty was walking his little black dog Mazy down an Eagan, Minn., cul-de-sac. John McCain had just called to break the news that he had picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. In his autobiography, Courage to Stand, Pawlenty recalled the disappointment he felt in that moment: “As I put the little bag over my hand and bent down to pick up her poop, I thought to myself, Well, this is the only number two I’ll be picking up today.”

So it was déjà vu on Aug. 6, when Mitt Romney called to tell Pawlenty that he wasn’t selecting the former Minnesota governor as his running mate. That Romney informed Pawlenty four days before the rest of his shortlist may reflect Romney’s appreciation for an able and tireless surrogate. And yet, Pawlenty has now endured the harsh scrutiny of the vice-presidential vetting process twice—and wound up the bridesmaid both times. Unlike the rest of Romney’s shortlist, he doesn’t have a plum political job to fall back on.

Where does Pawlenty go from here? As a key surrogate, he seems a possible fit for a Cabinet position if Romney wins in November. “If Romney were to win, I’m sure that they would seek out Pawlenty’s skills in any number of ways,” says Charlie Weaver, Pawlenty’s former chief of staff and friend of 25 years, who touts Pawlenty for a cabinet post in trade or education.

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The two men have a warm relationship that began shortly after Pawlenty dropped out of the 2012 presidential race in the wake of a poor finish in the Iowa straw poll. At Romney’s invitation, Pawlenty and his wife Mary visited the Romneys at their New Hampshire lake house. “They just got along great on a personal level. They’re very similar in a lot of ways,” says a former aide. “I think that’s how they’ve become good friends in the last couple months.”

Even if Romney loses, Pawlenty’s boosters see a bright future. There has been some talk of Pawlenty potentially running against Minnesota Senator Al Franken in 2014. If he has soured on politics, there’s always the private sector. Pawlenty sits on seven corporate boards, from a Pennsylvania sand-mining business to an Atlanta supply-chain company. In addition to his place in the private sector, Weaver sees an opportunity to do political commentary on the side, serving on panels for Sunday morning talk shows.

“He could do that kind of thing to keep his toe in the water on public policy, but still earn a living in the private sector,” Weaver says. “But I think at his core he’s a public servant. That’s just who he is.” Which was apparent in his dedicated support of Romney, for whom he’s spent months on planes and in rental cars and cable-TV studios.   “Give him a plane ticket and he goes,” says Eric Woolson, Pawlenty’s former Iowa communications director. “He’s a very humble and modest person in the sense that here’s a rental car, go. He’ll drive himself. He’s probably the lowest maintenance surrogate that you could possibly find.”

Pawlenty’s friends and former aides say he did the work to support his party. But University of Minnesota political science professor Lawrence Jacobs thinks Pawlenty may be eyeing a cabinet post in the Romney administration. “It’s a lot of time and work that he’s putting in,” Jacobs says. “There’s no doubt that the guy is working hard for some payback later.”

Even after being passed over once again, Pawlenty is still playing the part of the loyal soldier. “I am excited about a Romney-Ryan ticket and look forward to doing all I can to help them win this election,” he said in a statement after the pick was announced. On the day the new Republican ticket debuted on a Virginia battleship, Pawlenty was some 600 miles north, doing his part for his party–by addressing a small group of young Republicans in New Hampshire.