Tim Pawlenty is not going to light the world on fire. His speaking style will never be described as awe-inspiring, even by his most charitable admirers. But in politics, the flashiest contender doesn't always win, and Pawlenty's brand of capable, if a bit boring, technocrat could be exactly what the Republican Party needs in 2012.
Any campaign against an incumbent must answer two fundamental questions: Why should voters fire that incumbent, and do they have a credible alternative to whom they can turn? Without the latter, success convincing voters of the former doesn't matter. Pawlenty will spend a significant part of the next year aiming to convince Republicans he can offer that credible alternative.
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Pawlenty will rely on a record he believes is a sufficient answer to that question. His stump speech leans heavily on cutting government spending and fighting off most tax increases. He will face questions from rivals on his position on cap-and-trade legislation--he once favored, and now opposes, a proposed cap-and-trade system--but, for the two-term former governor of a state that hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican since 1972, his record has few blemishes he would like to gloss over before a conservative crowd.
(Democrats already have a thick file on Pawlenty. When he announced he would form an exploratory committee, the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party issued a scathing research document blasting Pawlenty for leaving the state in a fiscal crisis, for raising billions in taxes and fees, and for allowing the state to lose its perfect credit rating.)
Unspoken in making the contention that he is the credible presidential alternative is that other contenders in the GOP field cannot make the same case. Passion can excite a base--that's why former Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee lead the GOP field, why Newt Gingrich has been a shadow over every Republican field since 1996, and why Mitt Romney rarely opens his mouth without lambasting the Obama administration.
But Pawlenty embodies the stereotype of his home state, the "Minnesota Nice" attitude that leaves him smiling serenely even while tearing into Obama. He is by no means a perfect orator, and his aides admit he won't be able to go toe-to-toe with Obama on the soaring rhetoric. Attack-dog politics don't come naturally to Pawlenty, either. (While he's getting better at it, he has notably backed off criticizing Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts--although he still draws a contrast between Romney's plan and his own proposal to fully repeal the bill.)
Sometimes, the nice, if boring, technocrat can win. Consider the 2010 election cycle, a boon for Republicans. Senate contenders who won rarely offered the flash and presence of many of the Republicans who lost: Rob Portman, Pat Toomey, and Roy Blunt are hardly thrilling orators, and they don't give the base huge doses of red meat. Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and Ken Buck gave the base exactly what they wanted, offering no compromise with the other side. Portman, Toomey, and Blunt are now senators; Angle, O'Donnell, and Buck are not.
In the months leading up to his announcement this week that he would take initial legal steps toward launching a formal presidential campaign, Pawlenty hasn't attracted a horde of raving true believers. But he has laid a foundation to make the credible case that he is the candidate best attuned to the Republican primary electorate, and that he is the one best able to turn the 2012 campaign into a referendum on President Obama.