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07.13.11

Can Pawlenty Survive the 'Pledge'?

Tim Pawlenty refuses to sign the antigay, anti-porn pledge circulating among GOP candidates. Michelle Goldberg on how the decision speaks to his integrity—and may doom him in Iowa.

On June 28, Steve Deace, a right-wing activist and media personality in Iowa, held a focus group of undecided conservative voters. He went around the room and asked each participant, six men and three women, to give quick impressions of each candidate. “When we got to Tim Pawlenty, it was the most cringe-inducing moment of the entire evening,” Deace said. In a recording of the session, participants are heard using words like “spineless,” “wuss,” “yawn,” and “soft.” “These are the kinds of things no man ever wants said about them,” says Deace. “I don’t care if you’re running for president or looking for a prom date.”

Pawlenty, he concluded, badly needed to build up his credibility with the conservative base, which made signing the FAMiLY Leader’s anti-gay-marriage pledge mandatory. “Tim Pawlenty should probably just shut down his campaign headquarters if he doesn’t sign the pledge,” Deace told me Wednesday afternoon.

A few hours later, Pawlenty said that he would not in fact sign the pledge. “I fully support traditional marriage. Unequivocally,” he said in a written statement. “However, rather than sign onto the words chosen by others, I prefer to choose my own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own.” It was an impressive decision, but also a surprising one, and one that is likely to cost him among already-wary Iowa evangelicals.

It certainly puzzled Bob Vander Plaats, the FAMiLY Leader’s founder and an influential figure among the state’s conservative Christians. (Vander Plaats spells "FAMiLY" with a lowercase i to emphasize the submission of the individual.) His pledge—which commits candidates to opposing things like gay marriage, porn, abortion, and "quickie divorce"—has been circulating among GOP presidential hopefuls, two of whom have already signed on. “Iowans today, they’re looking for bold leadership,” said Vander Plaats. “There’s no doubt that this pledge represents bold leadership. With Michele Bachmann signing on right away and Rick Santorum signing on right away, what they’re saying is that they fully recognize marriage and family being at the centerpiece of a strong economy and strong society.” Pawlenty’s refusal to join them struck Vander Plaats as a weak capitulation to campaign consultants. “I like Tim Pawlenty very well as a person,” he says. “I think the world of his wife and his family. But the common concern or feedback we’re getting about his campaign is that we’re in need of bold leadership, and he seems to be a really nice guy” but not a fighter.

Vander Plaats says that the FAMiLY Leader won’t endorse anyone who doesn’t sign the pledge. As the former Iowa state chairman of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, which triumphed in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he has a lot of pull in the state. In the past, Pawlenty has cultivated him, speaking at the group’s presidential lecture series and dining at Vander Plaats’ home. Given how much establishment support Mitt Romney has, it’s hard to see how Pawlenty, already cratering in the polls, wins without religious conservatives.

It’s hard to see how Pawlenty, already cratering in the polls, wins without religious conservatives.

Earlier, Romney also declined to sign, saying that the pledge contained “references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign.” He deserves credit for the strength of his denunciation, but his refusal was predictable. Though he ran as the conservative alternative to John McCain in 2008, this time he’s positioning himself as the sane, electable centrist. Last month he refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s far-reaching anti-abortion pledge, so it would have been odd if he’d put his name on the FAMiLY Leader’s even more radical document. After all, the 14-point pledge is about far more than fighting gay rights and abortion. It also commits signatories to making divorce more difficult, to rejecting “Sharia Islam” (a theologically nonsensical term), and to protecting women and children from being “lured into promiscuity,” among other provisions. Initially, the pledge suggested that black families were in some ways more stable under slavery than they are today, though the FAMiLY Leader removed that language after a national uproar.

Given the pledge’s wackiness, Pawlenty’s refusal to sign it speaks quite well of his character. But religious conservatives in Iowa are unlikely to see it that way. The attendees in Deace’s focus group were convinced that for a candidate to be electable, he or she has to be willing to articulate just how apocalyptically evil the Obama administration has been. “We need a warrior that has no problem identifying Satan on the other side,” said one man. Another wanted someone who would “break Obama’s spine” in the debates.

Any sign of an impulse toward moderation or conciliation will only hurt Pawlenty with this crowd. They already think he’s soft after he backed down on his “Obamneycare” claims during the New Hampshire primary debate. Now they’re going to believe that liberal criticism scared him off from the pledge. “It reinforces the narrative that’s seeping in that he is soft,” says Deace. “Tim Pawlenty might be having too many people telling him what to say, and so he’s not comfortable in his own skin,” echoes Vander Plaats. Whether these assessments are fair is almost beside the point. What matters is what Iowa conservatives believe.