Pawlenty's Longshot Dream

Minnesota's ex-governor has a new book, is stepping up trips to Iowa—and tanks in 2012 polls. Howard Kurtz talks to him about taxes, Palin's crosshairs, and his "hot" wife.

01.11.11 10:40 PM ET

Tim Pawlenty is late for our call because he’s been mired in arrangements for his kids’ volleyball game.

Minnesota's ex-governor comes across as a regular guy—devoted dad, earnest public servant, common-sense conservative—and that’s how he portrays himself in a new autobiography designed to launch his candidacy for the 2012 presidential nomination. Although his state borders Iowa, he faces a steep climb from the valley of minuscule poll numbers. The question is whether a man who revels in such ordinariness, who speaks calmly and thoughtfully, can catapult himself into contention in today’s polarized era.  

Pawlenty seems slightly offended when I suggest that he doesn’t exactly electrify a room. “Compared to who?” he asks. “I’ll concede Sarah Palin has a different platform and quality about her, but compared to who? I’m not exactly Lady Gaga, but they aren’t either.”   

Fair enough. But since he invoked Palin, I ask the 50-year-old Republican how he would differentiate himself from her, figuring he’d at least observe that he has served two full terms as governor. He winds up sounding like her campaign manager.   

“If she ran, she would be a very formidable candidate,” Pawlenty says. “I like her. I respect her. She has a lot more capacity than some people give her credit for. The inference is that if you didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or serve as a CEO or a hedge-fund manager, that’s not the right stuff for leadership.”   

As for the infamous Palin “ crosshairs” map whose targets included Gabrielle Giffords 10 months before she was shot and wounded, the strongest response Pawlenty could muster, to The New York Times, was “It’s not a device I would have chosen to do.”

“It’s fair to say Republicans in [the Bush 43] era missed an opportunity,” Pawlenty allows. “They didn’t swing and miss, they didn’t even swing.”

OK, it’s early. But how about Michele Bachmann, the sharp-tongued Minnesota congresswoman who has been dropping hints that she might just make a White House run, which could crowd out another contender from the state? “I have a positive and cordial relationship with Michele,” he says.  

Pawlenty likes to play hockey, but no one can accuse him of high-sticking.   

In his book Courage to Stand, he describes an idyllic childhood in South St. Paul as a truck driver’s son who came home for lunch and was thrilled to get a paper route. His adolescence was marred only by his mother’s death from cancer when he was 16, “the first time I remember fervently asking for God’s help.” (The book is sprinkled with favorite biblical passages.)   

Pawlenty may have hired Hulk Hogan’s ghostwriter, but the prose is not of the pin-’em-to-the-mat variety:   

“In 1994, we decided to shop for a larger home to accommodate what we hoped and prayed would be our growing, happy, healthy family.”   

“I loved every minute of my 10 years in the legislature.”   

“When I woke up on the morning of November 6, 2002, I had one thing on my mind. I knew I had to live up to the promises I had made to the people of Minnesota.”   

The most dramatic scene in the book is when Pawlenty tells his wife Mary that he should retire as a state legislator, given the strain on the family, rather than try to succeed Jesse Ventura as governor. “Tim,” she said, “the state needs you.” Her Rocky Balboa speech, as he describes it, gave him the inspiration he needed.   

That inspiration extends beyond politics. Speaking of his “red hot smoking wife,” Pawlenty has joked that she even goes to hockey games with him: “Now if only I could get her to have sex with me, I’d really have it made.” (Saying he stole the line from the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights, he tells me: “I try not to use it anymore because some people misinterpreted it, but I think she is hot.”)  

Pawlenty is a small-government politician who doesn’t much dwell on social issues. He did not allow a major state tax increase during his tenure, but pushed off costs to localities that were forced to hike property taxes. He passed some modest health reforms—public-private partnerships for buying coverage, requiring state workers to pay more for expensive clinics—and is a fervent opponent of President Obama's health-care reform.   

If he has a signature theme, it is what he calls the “government finance bubble”: that there are too many federal and state employees, and they are earning fat pensions that society can no longer afford.   

“I do believe we’re going to require very significant austerity, at a historic level,” Pawlenty says. “I’ll fight to get that done.” He pushed through a measure cutting Minnesota’s public pensions by $2 billion over five years, mainly by trimming benefits and shifting costs to employees and localities.   

But if shrinking government is such a great idea, why didn’t the Bush administration and GOP Congress do it? “It’s fair to say Republicans in that era missed an opportunity,” Pawlenty allows. “They didn’t swing and miss, they didn’t even swing.”    

The book’s emphasis on Pawlenty coming from a “meatpacking town” and “lunch-bucket place,” and how people from “ Harvard and Yale and Wall Street” have screwed up the country, has struck a discordant note in some precincts on the right. Weekly Standard writer John McCormack says Pawlenty “runs the risk of overplaying the working-class shtick after his nearly 25 years as a lawyer and politician.”

Like ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Pawlenty comes from the party’s technocratic wing: even-keeled managers who know how to work with the other party without a lot of histrionics. In an ugly climate now marked by the Giffords shooting, maybe the country is ready for a dose of Minnesota Nice.   

But Pawlenty has lost to Palin before: He was the runner-up in John McCain’s search for a running mate, fully vetted and not knowing whether he would get the nod until McCain publicly anointed the woman from Wasilla. McCain opted for excitement, changing with one stroke the future of Republican politics.  

Pawlenty, who is hampered by low name-recognition, sees the book tour as “a chance for people to get to know me better.” But he drifts back to the notion that he has a charisma deficit.  

“As people think about an electrifying personality, remember that Reagan was civil and thoughtful and decent. I’ll put my record up against anyone in the country in that regard.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.