AMES, Iowa-Having just finished courting Iowa Republicans at a dinner in Ames, presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty walks outside to court the media. He is almost immediately asked a question that includes a reference to rival Michele Bachmann's sex appeal.
Five of the six questions reporters pose to Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, deal with the Republican congresswoman who also hails from Minnesota.
"You know Bachmann pretty well. What are her strengths and qualifications?"
"Could she beat Barack Obama?"
Pawlenty, trying to move up from the bottom of the GOP's presidential pack, smiles. Inside he may be seething, but he'd better get used to it.
The last election in which two White House contenders called Minnesota home was 1968. The state has brought America such liberals as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and now Al Franken. Minnesotans haven't given their state's electoral votes to a Republican since 1972.
But this year Minnesota has gone red. Pawlenty has been called the most conservative governor in the state's history. Bachmann is the first Republican woman elected from the state to the U.S. House. Now both are fighting to call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. Beyond being rare conservatives from a left-leaning state, both appeal to the same pro-life, pro-marriage, anti-Obamacare crowd.
Pawlenty famously has said Republicans should be the "party of Sam's Club not just the country club." Bachmann has embraced the rise of the Tea Party as warmly as any of her Capitol Hill colleagues. Both argue that they are the best options to unite all factions of the GOP. So what divides them? Both need a victory in Iowa's much-watched Aug. 13 straw poll to propel them toward November 2012.
Pundits and those who know them say it's hard to describe the two conservatives as Minnesota twins. Their political roots reside in Minnesota, yet anyone watching them on the campaign trail can see they possess different styles and distinct resumés. But a closer look at their working-class roots and current policy positions reveals at least a partly shared narrative.
Pawlenty, 50, grew up near the foul smelling slaughterhouses of the South St. Paul stockyards. He was one of five siblings in a Catholic family. His dad drove trucks, and his mom died while Pawlenty was a teenager. Then his dad lost his job. "I saw in the mirror the face of a very uncertain future," Pawlenty said.
He became the first member of his family to go to college. He stocked shelves in a grocery store for seven years and delivered newspapers to pay for tuition at the University of Minnesota where he earned undergraduate and law degrees. He wanted to be a dentist. He met his wife, Mary, in law school.
Bachmann, 55, was born in Iowa-a fact she doesn't hide in her campaign stops here. She describes how her ancestors "felled the trees and plowed the prairies" in Iowa's early days. "Everything I needed to know I learned in Iowa," she says.
Her grandparents worked on railroads, in sewing factories, and in packing plants. Her father was the first member of the family to go to college. Bachmann drove a school bus to help pay for college. She met her husband, Marcus, while attending Minnesota's Winona State University.
Both Pawlenty and Bachmann profess to be evangelical Christians and are comfortable discussing their beliefs in public. At the event in Ames, Pawlenty started his speech by talking about a passage in Isaiah Chapter 6 where God asks "Whom shall I send?" and Isaiah responds, "Send me."
"We have all been blessed with different resources," Pawlenty said. "The question is how are you going to use them? One of the most meaningful purposes we have in front of us is a responsibility to the care and custody of freedom."
Bachmann recently closed a speech in Washington, D.C., by evoking 1 Timothy 2:2 and asking the attendees to pray.
She then led the group in a prayer for the nation's leaders and its finances before asking for forgiveness for the nation's sins: "This is not a political scorecard," she prayed. "This is about the very life and future of our nation. So Father we lift it up to You. We ask that once again You will turn Your face towards us."
Both Bachmann and Pawlenty credit their spouses for helping them go deeper in their faiths. "She was pretty far ahead of me in terms of biblical memorization and knowledge," Pawlenty told me about his wife. "She really challenged me to get a better understanding of the Bible and its teachings."
Wanting a unified faith experience for their marriage, Tim left the Catholic church around the time of their 1987 wedding. He joined Mary as a member of the Wooddale Church in the Minneapolis suburbs. The couple are still members of the nondenominational evangelical megachurch, whose senior pastor, Leith Anderson, is the current president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"I can't say that I have caught her in my biblical knowledge, but I have closed the gap," Pawlenty said. Mary is featured in a recent six-minute campaign video talking about how their "faith walk" is the most important aspect of their marriage and family. In the video Pawlenty and his wife discuss why their hope is in Jesus Christ and how the United States was founded as a nation under God.
Pawlenty, who has called for the country to move toward God, says he is transparent about his beliefs because voters need to know the source of a leader's values. He told me that one of his favorite passages is Proverbs 3:5-6. "It is a daily reminder for me to make sure that we put our trust and our faith in the right place, which is God," he said. "You have got to have a sense of humility. There are so many things you can't control, and you have to know where your help comes from."
Married now for 33 years, Bachmann and her husband were inspired in college by theologian Francis Schaeffer's film series, How Should We Then Live? Bachmann, who went on an overseas mission trip to Israel sponsored by Young Life, said the videos impressed upon them the "high value we need to place on human life. That is the first right. Inalienable rights are ones that man cannot give, only a creator can."
For years Bachmann was a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and attended the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn. The synod came under media fire this summer for a doctrinal statement calling the pope the Antichrist.
While Bachmann has not been active in the church for the last two years, the press is raising questions about the timing of her family's decision to seek an official written release from their church membership. The synod granted that release just six days before Bachmann formally announced her candidacy.
Bachmann now attends Eagle Brook Church, a nondenominational megachurch with a Baptist heritage that boasts four Minnesota locations with worship services for more than 13,000 people each weekend.
This is not the only area of the Bachmanns' faith that has brought controversy. Marcus runs a Christian counseling center that's faced media attacks for its use of biblical counseling strategies, including prayer, with homosexual patients.
Bachmann and her husband have put their faith into action. Seeing a couple at church with foster children inspired Bachmann to open up her home to at-risk children. They cared for a total of 23 foster children, mostly abused teenagers, over a six-year period in the 1990s. "While we were by no means a perfect family, one thing that we could offer was just a little bit of a picture of maybe what the word normal looks like," Bachmann said in testimony before Congress in 2007.
These foster children led Bachmann to jump into the political arena. Bachmann's five biological children had been educated through a combination of Christian schools and homeschooling. But the law required Bachmann's foster children to attend public schools. Frustrated by the state's curriculum mandates, Bachmann ran for a school board seat in 1999. She lost. But even in defeat her public speaking gift attracted notice.
"I did not expect her to be so articulate, so dynamic, and so captivating," said Twila Brase, president of the St. Paul-based Citizens' Council on Health Care. Brase saw Bachmann inspire an audience during her grassroots push against the state's education standards and thought, "'Gracious, she's good.' I knew she'd be a little dynamo if she ever got elected."
The school board loss remains Bachmann's only campaign defeat. The next year she unseated a 28-year incumbent for a seat in the Minnesota senate. Six years later, in 2006, Bachmann won an open seat for the U.S. House. She became part of the smallest GOP freshman class in 60 years. A federal tax lawyer turned stay-at-home mom turned political activist had become a politician.
Pawlenty worked his way up the political ladder: from a seat on a city planning commission to city council to state legislator to Minnesota House Majority Leader to governor. Pawlenty won both of his governor's races with less than 50 percent of the vote, but despite being an underdog swore off negative campaigning: "My attitude in life is you can be a strong advocate without being a jerk," he said while running for governor.
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.
Conservatives did criticize Pawlenty for being a one-time supporter of cap-and-trade policies and for toying with government healthcare exchanges in 2007. He has since abandoned both and fought the new federal healthcare law as governor. On the campaign trail Pawlenty has denied any responsibility for Minnesota's most recent shutdown, saying it is due to a 20 percent spending increase he would have never allowed.
Pawlenty has been touting this resumé during his recent Iowa tour. "It is about record not just rhetoric," he said. "Do you just flap your jaws or do you get things done?"
This is a subtle swipe at Bachmann. Into her third congressional term Congress has yet to pass a single piece of legislation authored by Bachmann. She has not been tapped to lead a congressional committee or subcommittee. In recent speeches, she likes to highlight a "light bulb freedom of choice" act she has sponsored.
Bachmann has had six chiefs of staff since taking office. One of those former office heads, Ron Carey, described Bachmann's office as "wildly out of control" in an op-ed for the Des Moines Register. "If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?" Carey wrote.
Until last year's election, Bachmann had spent the bulk of her time on Capitol Hill handcuffed as a member of the minority party. Last fall, after Republicans won control of the House, Bachmann made an unsuccessful bid to join the GOP leadership team.
Rebuffed, she created her own leadership position by founding and chairing the Tea Party Caucus. In January, she irked GOP leaders by offering her own televised response to Obama's State of the Union address even though Republicans had selected Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to give the party's official reaction.
Viewing herself in Congress as a "foreign correspondent behind enemy lines," Bachmann tries to use her lack of legislative accomplishments as a strength during her speeches: "What I have tried fervently to do is to bring a different voice to Washington and to the halls of Congress that hasn't been heard for very long," she said.
This preference for an outside over an inside political game is the same tactic Bachmann used as a member of the Minnesota Senate. The Minnesota Family Council's Tom Prichard remembers getting a call from Bachmann soon after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that state's ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional in 2003.
"She said if this could happen in Massachusetts it could happen in Minnesota. She was ready to roll," Prichard said of Bachmann, who pushed for a state constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriages in Minnesota. "I see her as an activist who happens to be a legislator."
Bachmann spoke the language of the Tea Party before the Tea Party existed. Without the rise of the Tea Party it's doubtful her presidential campaign would exist. And if Bachmann found her audience in the Tea Party, she found her ultimate cause in the debate over Obamacare.
Her attacks on the bill, which she called the "crown jewel of socialism," culminated in an October 2009 appearance on Fox News when she called on citizens to make a "House call" on the Capitol in the days before the vote. "I'm asking people to come to Washington, D.C., by the carload . . . find members of Congress, look at the whites of their eyes, and say, 'Don't take away my healthcare.' This is our liberty and tyranny moment."
Thousands joined Bachmann around the steps of the Capitol.
But the frequency of Bachmann's exposure increases the odds of gaffes. She has had more than a few including claiming that an Obama trip to India would cost $200 million a day, that airstrikes in Libya potentially killed up to 30,000, and that Iran had a secret plan to partition Iraq.
So far, the gaffes haven't stopped Bachmann from gaining in the polls-seemingly at the expense of Pawlenty. Highlighting the importance of the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames to both candidates, Pawlenty and Bachmann ended July locked in an intensifying verbal battle. Bachmann on July 24 argued that Pawlenty's time as governor led to a multibillion-dollar deficit in Minnesota: "Executive experience is not an asset if it simply means bigger and more intrusive government," she said. Pawlenty came back a day later by shedding his Minnesota Nice persona and saying that Bachmann has a history of "saying things that are off the mark."
Pawlenty supporters believe he will persist. Steve Sviggum, the former House speaker, said Pawlenty installed a bubble hockey game in the basement of the governor's mansion where he successfully took on three opponents at a time in late night challenges of the foosball-style game. "I believe in my heart that he will be the last man standing," Sviggum told me. "He doesn't have anything hidden in his closet that will bring him down in October or November."
Steve Pirkle has his own idea about how to solve this Minnesota rivalry. "I'm thinking of maybe a ticket of him and of Bachmann would do," said the 48-year-old photographer from Mason City, Iowa, while leaving a Pawlenty event in Clear Lake. But when asked which one should run at the top of that ticket, Pirkle shook his head.
"Oh, I don't know about that yet."