Pawlenty’s 2012 Presidential Stock Rises, But Does He Have a Prayer?

The former governor’s ratings have jumped five points as he hits the stump with a message of fiscal austerity, God, and tough action in Libya. But the 2012 GOP candidate is still a second choice behind Romney, Gingrich and others. Howard Kurtz reports from New Hampshire.

The ex-governor's ratings have jumped five points as he starts campaigning. In New Hampshire, the candidate talks to Howard Kurtz about Paul Ryan’s budget, Bush’s spending, and more.

It was the perfect Tax Day setting: Under the golden dome of the New Hampshire state house, on a crisp Concord morning, a yellow "Don't Tread on Me" banner draped in front of a bronze statue of Daniel Webster.

About 200 people turned out Friday for the Tea Party protest, where Tim Pawlenty called them “Paul Revere patriots” and fired off a series of one-liners about the urgent need to “take our country back.”

But the former Minnesota governor displayed a tendency to push his rhetoric a bit beyond the facts, then beat a semantic retreat when challenged by reporters. The contrast between his fiery pronouncements at the podium and cautious responses in a makeshift press gaggle was striking.

Pawlenty shared the stage with three other Republican presidential aspirants: Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Buddy Roemer.

Reeling off a litany of alleged broken promises by President Obama, Pawlenty said Obama had indicated that unemployment would rise above 8 percent unless Congress passed his costly stimulus package. (The jobless rate did go to around 10 percent after the law passed, which might be an argument against the bill but isn’t a broken promise.) He also indicated that as a senator Obama had opposed raising the debt ceiling but now is asking Congress to do the opposite.

When I reminded Pawlenty that the president had not promised never to raise the debt ceiling, he said Obama had cited it as an example of failed leadership under George W. Bush. That’s a fair point, but not the broken promise he had recited to the cheering crowd.

Why not include the Bush administration in his indictment of a country failing to live within its means? “Lots of people and parties” were responsible for the growing debt and deficit, Pawlenty told me with studied vagueness, but “President Obama has made it exponentially worse.”

When a Wall Street Journal reporter pressed the Minnesotan on whether members of Congress should vote for the GOP plan designed by Paul Ryan, which would slash spending and turn Medicare into a voucher program, Pawlenty said he liked the plan “directionally” but refused to give a yes or no answer. He was, to put it mildly, choosing his words carefully.

On Thursday night at a gathering in Nashua, Pawlenty offered another bold-sounding prescription, declaring that Congress should not raise the debt ceiling when it expires.

It isn’t that he wants to plunge the United States into default, Pawlenty insisted. He said Obama can stretch out the process—paying off debts first, making sure soldiers get their checks, but waiting to fund lower priorities (which, of course, he did not specify).

Such a move would seem certain to frighten the credit markets, but when I asked Pawlenty about it, he maintained that Obama had set up a “false choice” and that there is “enough cash flow” to stretch things out while Congress pushes for a leaner budget.

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The ex-governor has honed his stump speech—he is punchier and funnier than his bland reputation might suggest—at a time when he appears to be getting a second look from voters like the more than 100 who packed into a small ballroom here.

The early line on Pawlenty damned him with faint praise: Nice guy, good governor, charisma-challenged, a real long shot.

But in the last few weeks the line has begun to shift. Now Republican insiders are starting to say the guy could actually win the presidential nomination.

What happened? A positive cover story in National Review, depicting him as a stick-wielding hockey player, didn’t hurt. (“Pawlenty guided Minnesota’s political culture firmly and sharply to the right” and “is more electable than Sarah Palin.”) The pundits softened their view (he “has an opening as the least objectionable candidate,” says Politico). And, well, his 2012 rivals haven’t blown anyone away.

Some New Hampshire residents say they aren’t bothered by Pawlenty’s lack of pizzazz. “I’m tired of superstars that flame out halfway through the campaign,” says Phil Straight of the Merrimack Conservation Commission.

“I’m not exactly Lady Gaga, but they (rivals) aren’t either.”

“We don’t need a rock star,” says his friend Dan Dwyer, a councilman in the town, calling Donald Trump a “distraction” who won’t wind up running.

Straight says he is impressed that Pawlenty “seemed to be successful” in what is “still a Hubert Humphrey state. He had to be kind of suave.”

Cliff Hurst, who runs a wealth management company and worked for Mike Huckabee in 2008, says Pawlenty struck him when they met as sharing the same down-to-earth qualities. “His father being a truck driver and growing up in a meatpacking town—having struggled in life, he knows what the common man goes through,” Hurst says.

Pawlenty’s focus is fiscal—a “federal government out of control”—but he also gives a nod to social conservatives. During his talk, Pawlenty said “we need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God.” He touches on foreign affairs, saying Obama was too slow to take military action in Libya and has not delivered on his demand that Muammar Gaddafi should go (though Pawlenty didn’t explain how he’d accomplish that, short of sending ground troops).

And the all-but-certain candidate has a self-deprecating touch, recalling that when his wife Mary complained about his schedule as governor and he countered that she had urged him to run, she replied: “But I didn’t think you’d win!”

Pawlenty denigrated the budget-cutting agreement that averted a government shutdown, seizing on the Congressional Budget Office finding that less than 1 percent of the promised $38 billion in savings would actually materialize. But he stopped short of criticizing John Boehner for bringing the House along, saying “it seemed like the best deal Republicans could get.”

Speaking to a group of reporters, Pawlenty sidestepped Obama’s criticism that Republicans want to slash spending only for the most vulnerable members of society. “The president’s got the country on the road to fiscal ruin,” he said. “Instead of just lecturing everyone in his vague flowery language, he should put some specific proposals on the table.” But Pawlenty was selective in his anti-spending fervor, saying he wouldn’t cut the Pentagon budget by a dime—and that any money saved through efficiencies should be plowed back into defense.

Oh, and we shouldn’t raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year, as the president wants to do, because they’re “already overtaxed.”

Is Pawlenty’s message starting to filter through at this early stage of a shapeless and low-key campaign?

“It’s not clear whether the impressions of Pawlenty have improved because of anything he’s done,” says former Republican strategist Dan Schnur. “But there’s a growing realization that the Republican field isn’t going to be as large or formidable as it looked like back in December or January. Pawlenty is everybody’s second choice, but in a primary field, maybe that’s not such a bad place to be.”

Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber describes Pawlenty as a fiscal conservative who is acceptable to the cultural-issues crowd because “he’s also a social conservative—not a fire-breather, but he’s got a solid record.” Pawlenty’s main appeal, says Weber, is his down-to-earth quality: “Working-class background in Minnesota, went to a Big Ten school, played hockey, goes to an evangelical church.”

The ex-governor is still largely unknown to the country, but in a Daily Caller poll of Republicans last week, he jumped five points, putting him at 11 percent behind Chris Christie at 14 percent, and Mitt Romney at 13 percent (Christie, of course, isn’t running). Donald Trump may be soaking up air time with his birther conspiracy theories, but it’s Pawlenty who this week signed operative Nick Ayers, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, as his campaign manager.

The hire is important, says Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez, because Palwenty needs a strong grassroots effort to raise enough money to be competitive. “He has the right credentials and the right message,” she says. “Can he articulate it in a way that catches fire in a campaign? That’s the question.”

Pawlenty advisers believe they have caught a series of breaks. Other potential candidates who would have competed for the same kind of voters—Sen. John Thune, Rep. Mike Pence—decided not to run, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels seems to be leaning against it. Some see Michele Bachmann as a Minnesota candidate who poses a genuine threat, given the way she excites grassroots conservatives, but an unlikely nominee.

Instead, Pawlenty strategists view Romney as the clear frontrunner, candidates like Bachmann and perhaps Sarah Palin or Ron Paul competing for the Tea Party mantle, and their guy challenging the likes of Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour to become the mainstream alternative to Romney.

While Pawlenty’s book tour and exploratory announcement went well, aides are well aware that their man is regarded as boring, and concede they have plenty of work to do. Pawlenty has a stock response to such criticism, telling me recently to compare him to his rivals: “I’m not exactly Lady Gaga, but they aren’t either.”

As a knot of voters waited patiently for pictures and autographs, I asked Pawlenty whether he’s frustrated by the fact that while he is out working states like New Hampshire, Trump is drawing 100 times as much coverage.

“He has a lot of familiarity and name ID,” the former governor replied evenly. “I think he’s funny. I think he’s successful.”

But is The Donald a serious candidate?

“He could be if he wanted to be.”

Pawlenty had to know that even a mild swipe at Trump might step on his message, so he engaged in a bit of diplomacy before turning back to budget talk.

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.