Tim Pawlenty: A 'Placebo' Candidate?

The Economist's Democracy in America blog quotes Charlie Cook describing former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a "placebo" candidate in the GOP presidential field, then makes the case:

... many more don't know anything about his governorship, or all that much about the man himself. As a result, Mr Pawlenty's candidacy lacks definition. Unlike other potential candidates who already have very public personae, Mr Pawlenty is in the unique position of being able to invent his. His story is not well known, he hails from a state that attracts little attention, his governorship has not come under intense scrutiny, and he has never run a national campaign. Of course, more will become known about Mr Pawlenty once the race heats up and his campaign gets into gear. Few people knew Mike Huckabee by this point in 2007. But the odd thing about the Pawlenty campaign thus far--and he's given enough stump speeches to call it a campaign--is that the candidate seems content to play the placebo. He has tried to be everything to everyone, and as a result seems like nothing in particular--a completely anodyne figure that attracts no enmity, inspires no passion, but could end up being "good enough" in the minds of Republican voters to win the nomination.

If Pawlenty is posed as a vanilla, placebo candidate, we would do well to think about his personality, and how that may or may not play into it. Pawlenty comes off as a nice guy. He's from the upper Midwest, and it shows.

I've seen Pawlenty speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference and hit all the fiscal-conservative, anti-Obama notes one would expect of a Republican candidate. But he's not a bomb-thrower. He doesn't say these things with the biting aggression of a Sarah Palin or the nonchalant divisiveness of a Newt Gingrich. He offers a tea-party-friendly message without the hot, searing id of an anti-health-reform rally. Viewed in the context of today's angry conservative base, there is something stylistically moderate about that. It engenders some cognitive dissonance that, I think, leaves Pawlenty uncategorized and therefore unrecognized.

In the March 7 issue of the National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru considered Pawlenty's lack of distinct identity and concluded something different: that "compared with his competitors, he is either more conservative, more electable, or both."

To make a sports analogy, Pawlenty is like a baseball player ranking fourth in multiple offensive categories, vying for the MVP.

But if he rises to occupy a middle space in the GOP presidential field, that won't be a bad thing.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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