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From Rival To Running Mate? Possible For Pawlenty

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaign in Las Vegas on Oct.  17, 2011.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaign in Las Vegas on Oct. 17, 2011.

As he shadowed President Obama's bus tour in Pennsylvania early this month, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave a pretty good impression of a man auditioning for a job.

There was Pawlenty as attack dog, one of the traditional roles of a running mate.

"I don't know if he's not listening or he doesn't care or he doesn't understand, but we've had enough of his teleprompter speeches," Pawlenty said of Obama, speaking to a crowd of Romney supporters at a stop in Pittsburgh. "We've had enough of him flapping his jaws. We've got too many Americans who are hurting, too many Americans who are unemployed, too many Americans who are underemployed."

And there was Pawlenty as loyal lieutenant, heaping praise on the presumptive Republican nominee.

"Mitt Romney's got a tremendous vision for this country," said Pawlenty, speaking at the same event in Pittsburgh. "It's a vision not based on a European style of more government. ... He's got proposals to lower taxes for businesses and for individuals. He wants to get federal spending under control. That's the kind of vision America needs."

In Backgrounds, Sharp Contrasts

Pawlenty's background couldn't be more different from Romney's. He is the son of a truck driver. His mother died while he was young. He is an evangelical Christian.

Ben Golnik served as Pawlenty's press secretary during his brief presidential run last year. He says Pawlenty's modest upbringing helps him connect with people.

"Whether it's going into a VFW lodge or going to a chamber of commerce meeting, talking to businessmen and women or talking to a group of CEO's from Fortune 500 companies, he's very comfortable in his own skin. He's genuine," says Golnik. "He's authentic, and I think that that quality, being able to communicate effectively, would serve him well in the Midwest, some of the Rust Belt states with blue-collar workers, [with] some of those Reagan Democrats."

Pawlenty, 51, served two terms as governor of Minnesota, and the fact he was considered as presidential candidate John McCain's running mate in 2008 helps make him a safe pick for Romney.

There's been some grumbling in the conservative blogosphere that he is insufficiently conservative. He once supported a cap-and-trade solution to global warming, and he raised taxes on tobacco in Minnesota.

Former Republican Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota says the carping is nonsense.

"We went through all this when Tim ran for president, and he did change his mind on the issue of cap-and-trade and on the broader issue of how we should approach climate change," says Weber. "But other than that, you know, I've just got to tell you, coming from the state of Minnesota, home of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Wellstone, Al Franken — he is the most conservative governor in my lifetime by far."

His 'Obamneycare' Moment

Early in the GOP primary campaign, Pawlenty criticized Romney's stance on health care, dubbing the plan he implemented as Massachusetts governor "Obamneycare." He backed away from the characterization during one debate with Romney, but given the chance at a subsequent debate in Ames, Iowa, last August, he returned to it.

"Obamacare was patterned after Mitt's plan in Massachusetts. And for Mitt or anyone else to say that there aren't substantial similarities or they're not essentially the same plan, it just isn't credible," said Pawlenty. "So that's why I called it Obamneycare. And I think that's a fair label, and I'm happy to call it that again tonight."

That difference seems to have been patched over. By October, Pawlenty had dropped out of the GOP primary race, endorsed Romney and was appearing alongside the candidate at campaign events.

Pawlenty's biggest drawback as a candidate — or maybe his biggest plus — could be a lack of sizzle. He jokes about it, just this week offering to show a Fox interviewer his tattoos.

But Weber, an unpaid adviser to Romney who says he is neutral in the selection of a vice presidential running mate, calls Pawlenty solid and tested, which may be all he needs.

"Republicans who want to compete with President Obama on the charisma scale I think are going to find themselves disappointed no matter who they choose," says Weber. "I don't think that that's the contrast that wins us the White House. I think the country will warm to him very quickly and find a lot of charm and a lot of, maybe more low-key charisma, but nonetheless charisma."

Weber and other Republicans say Pawlenty is ready to assume the presidency if need be. And perhaps equally important, Romney is said to be comfortable with him.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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