Can an Electable Conservative Still Get Elected?

The tribulations of Tim Pawlenty

Tim Pawlenty's Tax Day rally in Boston didn't draw nearly as much notice as Sarah Palin's in Wisconsin or Donald Trump's in Florida. And that, in a nutshell, is his big problem. Pawlenty would like to be the next Republican presidential nominee, but nobody is paying him much mind.

In theory, the successful two-term Republican governor of Minnesota should be a political star, and he nearly was one -- but John McCain passed him over and chose Palin for his running mate in 2008. Since then, theory has succumbed to prosaic reality: Pawlenty is one of several accomplished, credentialed Republicans having a much harder time breaking through than they ever would have imagined. As much as anyone, he's the victim of the conservative electorate's sharp turn to the right and its appetite for bombast over competence and professionalism. They're not big on bombast in Minnesota.

To compete in this unfavorable climate, Pawlenty has emphasized his evangelicalism (he converted from Catholicism) and worked hard to court the Tea Party movement. In character, if not in substance, this is a marked departure from the moderate disposition he displayed as governor, and it has led to the dreaded Mitt Romney comparison -- the suspicion that he is disingenuously styling himself a hardcore conservative for crude political advantage. But Minnesotans don't quite agree. "Pawlenty is the most conservative governor we've seen in the modern era," says Lawrence Jacobs, who directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. "But he had the political intelligence to not come across that way."

Indeed, in a swing state like Minnesota with a Democratic legislature, Pawlenty's viability as governor probably depended on it. Yet he ran on pledge not to raise state taxes, and over two terms he mostly kept it, while vetoing more bills than any of his predecessor. Tax activists point out that he did implement a "health impact fee" on cigarettes, which is a tax in all but name. Democrats add that while state taxes didn't rise, local property taxes soared. And today's purist conservatives find one of his acts totally heretical: his support for cap-and-trade climate legislation, a no-brainer in a farm-and-wind state like Minnesota. But the Romney comparison doesn't hold here either. Rather than equivocate or try to justify this action, Pawlenty forthrightly apologized for it, and conservatives don't seem to hold this against him.

It may be that they're just not paying attention. Pawlenty's staff insist they're not worried, that it's still early. ''It's natural at this stage of the campaign for people like Tim Pawlenty to be less well known, and people like Trump, or Romney or Huckabee who have run before, to be better known," said one of his advisers. "It's the process of a campaign, if you're successful, that makes you well known."

But Pawlenty isn't rich or well-connected. He lacks other candidates' preexisting bases of support. He doesn't arouse social conservatives like his fellow Minnesotan, Michele Bachmann. He'll probably have to win Iowa or New Hampshire to have a realistic shot at the nomination. So he has to make himself stand out.

He has tried to do this by casting himself as a fiery populist, and here the comparisons with Romney hold up a bit better. The national media view him with some puzzlement and snicker at his early campaign ads, shot in the jump-cut style of action movies. Some conservatives seem open to supporting him, but most remain noncommittal -- Bachmann has gained more traction in Iowa, despite a much thinner resume. Hardly anyone finds Pawlenty's transformation entirely convincing. "To those of us who have known him a long time, it's like a Michael Jackson political-personality change," Jacobs said. "He's sacrificing his authenticity and intelligence in pursuit of some dumbed-down notion of charisma."

That, of course is the kind of trade-off that presidential candidates have been making from time immemorial, but one much more pronounced this cycle. That's a reflection of how much the conservative base has changed over the last few years. Pawlenty must hope that it hasn't changed so much that what he represents -- an electable conservative -- has lost its appeal altogether.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

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