Cover Story

Minnesota twins?

"Minnesota twins?" Continued...

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

He has been tagged with being too "Minnesota nice." So what happened during the June 13 New Hampshire GOP presidential debate shouldn't have been too surprising. Days before the election, the Pawlenty campaign coined the word "Obamneycare" in an effort to connect frontrunner Mitt Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan to Obama's federal healthcare law.

But when asked repeatedly to elaborate on the catchphrase by CNN debate moderator John King, Pawlenty refused to detail the plan's problems in front of Romney. Pawlenty had missed a headline-grabbing moment.

Instead Pawlenty had to stand on stage and learn a lesson in Bachmann-style campaigning. A poised Bachmann used the debate to announce to a national television audience that she was officially running for president. She got the night's first big applause with the statement: "I want to announce tonight President Obama is a one-term president."

In the first poll after the debate, Bachmann skyrocketed to second place with 19 percent. Pawlenty tied for sixth place with 6 percent.

Bachmann has long been a favorite of talking heads. She appeared on national television, mostly Fox News, once every nine days in 2009. There is even a Michele Bachmann action figure for sale.

This attention translates into campaign cash: Bachmann raised $13.5 million for her 2010 reelection bid-more than any other House incumbent. She has broad grassroots appeal: In the first quarter of this year, 75 percent of her donations came from donors giving $200 or less.

Pawlenty can boast of no eponymous action figure and only intermittent television appearances. So far he's been unable to stop a national narrative that he is boring-an image that puzzles those who know Pawlenty. Former Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum calls Pawlenty an accomplished prankster who had enough guts to take on wrestler turned governor Jesse Ventura when Pawlenty was House Majority Leader.

But during a recent Pawlenty campaign stop in Urbandale, Iowa, Bill Campbell was one of the first people to grab the microphone. He told Pawlenty that he would like to see a stronger demeanor from him. "I think he comes across as vanilla," Campbell, a retired postal worker from Indianola, explained later. "He is going to have to have a little more passion to win the election."

Pawlenty answered Campbell by saying that "the loudest guy or woman in the bar usually isn't the toughest. I'm an old hockey player. I've been in more fights than the rest of the candidates combined." While Bachmann specializes in stirring the crowds, Pawlenty doesn't mind sharing the stage. At the Urbandale town hall Pawlenty called up a 10-year-old boy wearing a Minnesota Vikings jersey and asked him to explain the problems with Obama's economic politics.

"Pawlenty is well-known for being likeable," said Doug Tice, an editor with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's a guy you'd want to have a beer with. But that doesn't come across on TV." Pawlenty's defense is that America "doesn't need an entertainer in chief." So he has replaced theatrics with a methodical presentation of his conservative bona fides in a series of major policy speeches.

As governor, Pawlenty inherited a $4.5 billion state budget deficit. He also faced a Senate controlled by the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for both of his terms and a DFL-controlled House his final term as governor. His clash with lawmakers over budget issues in 2005 led to the state's first government shutdown in 150 years. It lasted for nine days.

Having campaigned on a no-new-taxes pledge, Pawlenty cut taxes by $800 million. But Minnesota lawmakers resolved the shutdown only after Pawlenty agreed to a "health impact fee" that imposed a 75-cent per pack increase on cigarettes. "They didn't call it a tax, but everyone laughed at that," Tice said. "They knew what it was."

The governor set a record for vetoes, earning him a "godfather of no" headline from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Pawlenty also beat the unions during a 44-day transit strike over workers wanting taxpayer-funded vested healthcare benefits for life. "He was a stellar goalie, stopping shots at a time when the other side had a power play on," said John Helmberger with the Minnesota Family Council. "He understands why government cannot be a savior."

Overall Pawlenty reduced the growth rate of state spending as governor for the first time in Minnesota history. From 1960 to 2003, the state budget grew 21 percent on average every two years. The average fell to 4 percent on Pawlenty's watch. The conservative Cato Institute gave Pawlenty one of only four "A" grades for governors last year. "He fundamentally changed taxing and spending patterns over the last eight years," said Mitch Pearlstein, the president of the Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment.


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