T-Paw Comes Out

What's Gov. Tim Pawlenty's distinguishing characteristic? What's the guy going to be known for as he steps up his semi-visible pre-presidential campaign with trips to Iowa in August, a series of high profile media appearances, and whispers about an early 2012 launch? Is he the guy who proclaimed his wife to be "smoking hot"? Is he the guy with a nickname he embraces? Or is he the dude who doesn't have Mitt Romney's money or Sarah Palin's buzz?

Pawlenty is one of several potential candidates angling for the sober side of Republican primary voters. Romney, Sen. John Thune, who will campaign frequently for candidates this fall, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi are the others. If 2012 is about the battle between superego and id, Pawlenty fits in the middle, somewhere between the delayed gratification campaign that Daniels might run and the immediate gratification carnivals that are Sarah Palin events.

Economic libertarianism is the message du jour, and Pawlenty's budget-cutting in Minnesota may get some attention. But really, neither he nor the other sober wing candidates have figured out exactly what the non-Palin wing of the party wants. There's no way to court social conservatives with Palin or Mike Huckabee in the race. So who's left to help you win primaries and caucuses? 

Libertarians.

To the Republican Party, they are -- they could be --  what the anti-war left was to Democrats in 2003: the out-of-the-establishment power center that can drive the narrative of the race. How do you get the attention of libertarians without losing conservatives? You could shift positions on the war in Afghanistan, or try to fashion a more realist foreign policy. That seems to be a non-starter; the consultants for these candidates are fairly covnentional and risk-averse.  Endorse medical marijuana? Legalize gambling? Something else? 

A word on John Thune: I think he wants to be vice president. He also lacks a compelling characteristic, aside from his general hunkiness and braininess.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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