Why Pawlenty Is the Goldilocks Candidate for Vice President

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Not too exciting and not too boring, not too conservative and not too moderate, the former Minnesota governor would be a perfect wingman for Mitt Romney.

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Reuters

Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign, at one time a promising drive toward the White House, ended without a whimper, much less a bang -- it was really more of a shrug. But as Mitt Romney prepares to choose his running-mate, the former Minnesota governor looks like a perfect pick for the very same reasons he was a serious presidential contender, but also for the reasons his run fizzled.

Here's the case in a nutshell: Pawlenty is not too exciting (a campaign official told Politico in May that the VP pick would likely be "an incredibly boring white guy"), but has just enough vim in the right areas to make up for Romney. He's conservative and religious enough, but not too conservative and not too religious (we're looking at you, Sarah Palin.) He has much in common with Romney -- enough to make the candidate feel comfortable -- but not so much that he would offer nothing new. In short, he's not too hot and not too cold, and that could make him just right -- Mitt Romney's Goldilocks candidate.

It's easy to forget how strong Pawlenty once appeared. Ramesh Ponnuru, in a lengthy March 2011 National Review profile, was ready to anoint him: "Compared with his competitors, he is either more conservative, more electable, or both." And it wasn't just a right-wing crush. On the left, Jonathan Chait was pretty sure Pawlenty was the Republicans' best hope. "In a wide-open field, Pawlenty is where I'd place my bet," he wrote (NB: Don't take gambling advice from Jonathan Chait). He ultimately failed to build a case for why he was preferable to the more colorful Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann, the more conservative Rick Santorum, or the better organized and funded Romney. Being a jack of many trades but master of none is a far more useful skill in a vice-presidential contender, however, and he's reportedly getting a close look from Beth Myers, the aide Romney has appointed to lead the running-mate search. Here are a few of Pawlenty's major assets:

  • He has a strong record in Minnesota: Pawlenty -- like Romney -- was the conservative governor of a blue state, and met with success. He served two terms, unlike Romney, who declined to run rather than face a likely defeat. Pawlenty touts leaving the state with a budget surplus (although it required some one-time tricks and was not sustainable). His record is unquestionably conservative, but not so extreme that he couldn't fit into Romney's post-primary tack toward the center.
  • He's a regular guy: The idea that Mitt Romney struggles to connect with the common man is so entrenched at this point that it's hardly worth repeating. Pawlenty would go a long way to bridging the gap. He's a classic salt-of-the-earth midwesterner, but with a more compelling life story than veepstakes rival Rob Portman of Ohio. Pawlenty's father was a truck-driving man; his mother died when he was a teenager. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. He describes himself as a "Sam's Club Republican." He plays hockey. And unlike the teetotaling Romney, he is constantly talking about beer (most recently saying Obama is all foam and no beer).
  • He would help with evangelicals: There's little chance of Romney losing the evangelical vote, but he could use some help in the area. Selecting Pawlenty, an evangelical, could help build enthusiasm -- and perhaps soothe the nerves of anyone still nervous about a Mormon candidate.
  • He's nearly shatterproof: The flip side of boring is reliable. Although there's probably a tendency to overlearn the lessons of undervetting Sarah Palin in 2008, Pawlenty has been through the media wringer as a presidential candidate, he's been through the rigors of the campaign trail, and he was already vetted four years ago when he nearly edged Palin out for the No. 2 slot behind McCain. That makes it much less likely that he'd give the Romney campaign an unpleasant surprise. And unlike Portman, who served as budget director during the profligate George W. Bush, Pawlenty avoided the taint of the Bush Administration, a plus among both conservatives of the Tea Party persuasion and deficit-conscious moderates.
  • He has passed the loyalty test: Romney values loyalty, and he likes to hold on to people he's comfortable with. Pawlenty fits the bill: Since dropping out of the race and endorsing Romney, he's been a tireless campaigner, criss-crossing the country to stump. And unlike Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, he's done so without stealing many headlines for himself. It helps that he never developed a contentious relationship with Romney during the early campaign -- most notoriously, he choked and refused to deliver his "Obamneycare" slam when called upon to do so in a debate.

There are, of course, areas where Pawlenty is lacking. After all, it's not for nothing that after approximately three years of campaigning, he was still struggling with low name-recognition and a lower share of the vote when he dropped out. Like Romney, he's another staid governor. That means Pawlenty doesn't add much to the Romney ticket in terms of foreign policy -- an area of weakness for the candidate, as his gaffe-driven overseas tour proved. It would also leave a President Romney without a right-hand man who had any experience in Washington or in either house of Congress -- a potentially serious handicap for wrangling bills, especially since Romney struggled to build ties with legislators while governor of Massachusetts.

Pawlenty also wouldn't help Romney win his home state, since his own favorables are underwater in Minnesota; a June survey found that Minnesotans favored Pawlenty as a running mate over other contenders, but still preferred Obama-Biden to Romney-Pawlenty by a double-digit margin. Past policy heresies could hurt a ticket, too. As governor, he supported both cap-and-trade and a 75-cent cigarette tax, which earned him a scolding from self-appointed but widely feared tax disciplinarian Grover Norquist.

Still, none of those is a fatal flaw. Given what Romney wants and needs from a running mate, there's no better candidate for the slot.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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