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11.20.09 9:31 PM ET

The GOP's New Hope?

Forget Palin. How Tim Pawlenty, a (mostly) moderate, working-class guy from the frozen north could win over the GOP in 2012.

Forget Palin. How Tim Pawlenty, a (mostly) moderate, working-class guy from the frozen North could win over the GOP in 2012.

As the Republican Governors Association gathers in Austin this week, there is a real sense among conservatives that the Obama Bubble is about to burst. And all eyes are on the assembled governors to see who might do the bursting in 2012. Ever since his 2002 election, I've kept close tabs on Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. As governor, Pawlenty coined the phrase “Sam’s Club Republican,” which Ross Douthat and I later used to refer to a strain of Republicanism that aims to meet the needs of working and middle class voters. In an interview with the Ripon Society, a storied think tank for GOP moderates, Pawlenty described the essence of Sam's Club Republicanism. "People who are going to Sam’s Club don’t have more money," said Pawlenty, and so "they have to live on a budget, and they still have to meet needs."

One wonders if Pawlenty is repeating the mistake Mitt Romney made in 2008 by trading in his hard-won reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver in exchange for tissue-thin conservative credibility.

Now Pawlenty finds himself lurching from the frozen north into the crosshairs of national politics. How’s he doing?

Recent months seem to have vindicated this brand of cost-conscious Sam's Club Republicanism. The hope among conservatives is that Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, the newly elected governors of New Jersey and Virginia, are a harbinger of major Republican victories in gubernatorial races next year. Both candidates won in states that President Obama won in 2009, suggesting that at least some independent voters have soured on the expansive and expensive Democratic agenda. Next year, the RGA is paying particular attention to races in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, all Obama states that have been hit particularly hard by rising unemployment. It's easy to see how a governor with a proven track record and a focus on bread-and-butter issues could do well. There are at least four sitting Republican governors who are considered potential presidential contenders. But only Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is doing the hard work of gathering his forces, hiring consultants, and raising his national profile.

On paper, Tim Pawlenty's appeal is clear. As the two-term governor of Minnesota, he has a demonstrated ability to win the votes of Democrats and independents. To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans will have to break out of their demographic box, and that means winning races in the Upper Midwest and other regions that have proven inhospitable terrain for at least the last decade. As the first member of his working-class family to graduate from college, Pawlenty has a compelling personal story. Pawlenty also has a reputation as a likable and even gentle campaigner, who isn't inclined to use scorched-earth tactics against his opponents, a break with the anger to tea-party activists who've energized the conservative base but who might also turn off swing voters who like their leader even-tempered.

It's also true, however, that Pawlenty didn't win a majority in 2002 or 2006, and his margin of victory the last time around was incredibly narrow: he won 46.7 percent to 45.7 for Democratic Attorney General Mike Hatch. Had Pawlenty received the vice presidential nomination in 2008, it is by no means clear that he could have secured Minnesota for John McCain. By way of contrast, in Indiana, which also went for Obama, Mitch Daniels crushed his Democratic opponent Jill Long Thompson by 57.8 percent to 40.1 percent. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted in late September found that 55 percent of Minnesotans don't want Pawlenty to run for the presidency, though 50 percent of them would at least consider voting for him if he did. These aren't very inspiring numbers, and Minnesota voters have had almost eight years to get to know Pawlenty.

Then there is the question of Pawlenty's conservatism. As governor, Pawlenty has trimmed state spending and fought tax increases, yet he has whipsawed from backing a regional cap-and-trade proposal in 2007 and pressing for major public spending on reducing carbon emissions to criticizing congressional Democrats for taking the same steps at the federal level. In fairness, there are important differences between the two approaches, and Pawlenty's position is defensible on the merits. But it certainly looks like a flip-flop, and that will prove a liability in the Republican primaries to come. This year, after deciding against running for a third term, Pawlenty pressed for steep spending reductions, forcing a major confrontation with Democrats in the state that has led to a lawsuit over the budget. He's also used tough language to oppose the Democratic health reform proposals and backed innovative, small-scale measures designed to reduce costs over time, winning praise from conservatives. Whatever you think of this move on the merits—it strikes me as both substantively right and politically shrewd—this hasn't won Pawlenty many friends in his home state. It seems very clear that Pawlenty is keeping an eye on his right flank. One wonders if he is repeating the mistake Mitt Romney made in 2008 by trading in his hard-won reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver in exchange for tissue-thin conservative credibility.

Pawlenty's greatest advantage is that the Republican field in 2012 looks fairly thin. Mitch Daniels has the strongest credentials, but he doesn't have an obvious base. Mitt Romney has formidable financial resources and he gained crucial experience during his 2008 presidential bid, but, as the former governor of Massachusetts and a newly minted pro-lifer, he has a number of liabilities. Mike Huckabee has won the loyalty of evangelical voters, yet economic conservatives are allergic to his brand of populism and it's not clear that he has much appeal beyond his base. Rather depressingly, Tim Pawlenty could win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 simply by being the least offensive candidate. Even if enthusiasm for Obama dies down in a few years time, that doesn't bode well for the general election.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.