“Gov. Pawlenty claims, of course, that he’s just seeking to help fellow Republican candidates,” said Michael Bath, chairman of the political science department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., referring to the PAC. “If you’re going to make a national run, this is one of the things you have to take care of.”

“Given some success in a state like Minnesota makes one think that he might have some success on the national scene,” Bath continued. “He might develop some notoriety between now and when the election begins to heat up. You hear some grumbling in the state that he’s seeking to position himself and not governing as much as in the past. But that’s what he’s going to need to do.”

The Democratic Farmer Labor Party Chairman Brian Melendez has been poking fun at Pawlenty for taking time to “visit” Minnesota, calling him the state’s “part-time governor” and “Minnesota’s mother-in-law.”

Pawlenty is coy about presidential ambitions.

“My responsibility as governor is to serve the state of Minnesota,” Pawlenty told me in an interview during last fall’s Values Voters Summit. “But as time allows, I’ve learned some things as a conservative governing in a pretty left-of-center place. I have some ideas I want to share to try to improve the conservative movement and my party.”

MIDWEST MOMENTUM

Pawlenty was the keynote speaker at the Nov. 7 “Leadership for Iowa” event in Des Moines, sponsored by the Iowa Republican Party. As governor of a nearby state, Pawlenty could be in a strong position to win the Iowa caucus in 2012. Most battleground states are in the Midwest, which would also make him an appealing nominee for Republicans who want to recapture states such as Ohio and Michigan.

“It’s an interesting situation for him, being that he is from a fairly moderate-to-liberal state. He’s had to take some positions that may not work so well for him as he tries to position himself with the base in running a national campaign,” Bath said. “On one hand, there is some notoriety being governor of a battleground state. But on the other hand, he’s had to moderate his position somewhat. As he seeks to solidify a base behind him going into this election, he may run into some difficulties.”

There is a long graveyard of Minnesota presidential candidates who were not successful. Walter Mondale won his home state by just 3,761 votes but lost 49 other states in 1984. Hubert Humphrey gave a more respectable showing in 1968 but still lost, while Eugene McCarthy never won the nomination. Of course, they were all Democrats, so it might not be fair to say Pawlenty would face the same Minnesota curse.

Meanwhile, a poll by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune found only 30 percent of Minnesotans think their governor should run for president and 55 percent do not. Just 50 percent said there was a “chance” they would vote for him, while 43 percent said there was no chance. Those aren’t the most encouraging numbers.

“I don’t think the trend has ever been, ‘as Minnesota goes, so goes the nation,’” said former Minnesota state Rep. Phil Krinkie, who served with Pawlenty in the legislature and while Pawlenty was governor. “If I were advising him on anything regarding presidential aspirations, I think the last thing you’d want to worry about is Minnesota if you want to be elected president.”

SAM’S CLUB REPUBLICAN

Krinkie, now the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, believes that Pawlenty is striking the right tone by trying to make the Republican Party more appealing to blue-collar voters with the term “Sam’s Club Republican,” a counterweight to “Country Club Republicans.”

“As a long-time Republican, I’m a little mystified at how people say that Republicans are the party of the rich,” Krinkie continued. “The party of the rich is the Democrats. The party of the working people is the Republicans. We want people to hold on to a little bit more of what they make. The Democrats are the ones that want to take everything you’ve got. I think Pawlenty does speak to that. I think he does a very good job of communicating that message.”

Pawlenty’s own family background as the son of a truck driver and the first in his family to graduate college helps in that narrative that is appealing to voters. Pawlenty, in many ways, fits the goals laid out in the book “Grand New Party” by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam about winning the working class.

Pawlenty stresses this does not mean forgetting Reagan conservatism.

“It’s probably a more modern way to think about Reagan Republicans,” Pawlenty said. “I call them [Sam’s Club Republicans] because, if you think about people who shop at places like Sam’s Club or Costco or Wal-Mart or Target, a Minnesota company, the folks with limited means, limited circumstances, that’s kind of the background I have, and so they don’t have more money to spend, but they want good value for the money they are spending. I think that’s a good lesson and a good insight for conservatives as we try to lead and govern.”

Reagan built a majority coalition by strongly embracing blue-collar voters, Pawlenty said.

“My experience is born of coming from a family of blue-collar background and union workers who are my brothers and sisters, they share our values and beliefs, but they’ve kept a misimpression—or did—that Republicans weren’t significantly for the working person, and we need to change that perception,” Pawlenty said. “Not by changing what we believe, but showing them how what we believe is better for them in the long run.”

The Sam’s Club label might have been pushed by Pawlenty, but the philosophy is not unique to him. He’ll certainly face competition from Huckabee and Palin—both of whom also have wide appeal to blue-collar voters—if he chooses to make that a central case in his campaign.

The strategy might have success, as independent voters are moving away from President Obama and his policies, said Bath.

Like other Republicans, Pawlenty thinks this provides an opening, but only if Republicans articulate a clear agenda.

“We’re benefiting, of course, because President Obama and the Democrats are overreaching and making tremendously bad decisions,” Pawlenty said. “And so, we’re seeing the pendulum swing back to conservatives because of that. But our strategy just can’t be to wait until the other side messes up. We also have to have a vision for the future of the country, and it’s getting back to conservative principles and conservative roots and presenting them and communicating them in ways people will understand and support.”

“I think Republicans lost their way,” he said. “We lost the majority, as well, because people realized the Republicans in Washington weren’t living up to their word, weren’t doing what they said they were going to do.”

ON THE RECORD

His most significant closing act of 2009 was proposing a “Spending Accountability Amendment” to the state constitution be on the November 2010 ballot. The amendment would constitutionally cap the state general fund budget at the level of money the state actually receives during the previous budget period.

“For 40 years prior to my inauguration as governor, Minnesota government spending increased by an average of more than 10 percent per year,” Pawlenty said when announcing the proposal. “During my time in office, we slowed that to just over 2 percent per year and cut spending for the first time in the history of the state. However, limiting government spending growth should not be a once-in-a-century event. We should let Minnesotans decide if government should live within actual revenues collected instead of predictions. Doing so would force government to live within its means and stop the seemingly unending desire for more programs and more spending that put pressure on taxpayers’ wallets.”

An ensuing campaign for such an amendment seems like a decent move to highlight his conservative credentials to a national audience.

From a conservative perspective, his fiscal record is authentically strong but not flawless.

Pawlenty balanced the state budget four times without tax hikes, and eliminated a $4.5 billion deficit in 2003 and a $4.8 billion deficit in 2009. He touts that he signed about $800 million in tax cuts as governor and instituted a three-year property tax cap that will save taxpayers $460 million. From a national perspective, he moved Minnesota out of the top 10 highest-taxed states in the country.

Also, Minnesota leads the country in per capita income and the most Fortune 500 companies of any state. These are some good bona fides to run on if the economy is still the issue in 2012.

“We have a reckless amount of deficit and debt in this country. The Obama administration and this Congress are exponentially growing that,” Pawlenty said. “It’s going to massively burden our children and our grandchildren. I think we’re going to have government debt equivalent to the subprime mortgage meltdown in the not-too-distant future. And for those of us who can see that coming, we need to stand up, we need to shout that that is reckless, that it is irresponsible, and we can’t allow that to continue.”

Minnesota also has the highest ACT scores. Those high test scores could be a result of stricter high school graduation requirements Pawlenty signed into law and his policy of linking teacher pay to student achievement. This indicates he isn’t afraid of the teachers’ union.

These are all things he will almost certainly talk about in a presidential campaign.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, gives him only a “B” for fiscal policy, citing that he backed a $200 million cigarette tax hike in 2005 and a $109 million corporate tax increase in 2008. But Cato gave him kudos for his veto of a gas tax increase and of income tax hikes and for delivering restrained budgets.

But liabilities are, well, aplenty for convincing primary voters.

Pawlenty has professed his belief in man-made global warming, according to the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, and even suggested the state join the Chicago Climate Exchange, where so-called carbon offsets are traded.

A news release from the governor’s office boasts of “establishing Minnesota as the Renewable Fuels Capital of the United States by doubling the amount of renewable fuel used in gasoline, implementing the use of biodiesel and enhancing Minnesota’s role as a top wind-energy-producing state.”

He also signed the “25 x 25” law, establishing that 25 percent of energy in the state must come from renewable energy by 2025.

Republican primary voters are concerned about cap-and-trade policies they consider threatening to economic growth. But this should all be considered in context, explained Krinkie.

“He has supported legislation here to move the state toward some alternative energy. In my view, you’ve got to look at that from the view that Minnesota is totally dependent on imported energy,” Krinkie said. “Other than ethanol, we have no naturally produced energy. We have no coal. We have no oil or gas. We’re a state that’s totally dependent on importing energy. It’s in that context of being an agricultural state and having some natural wind, or potential for wind energy. I’m not saying I agree with the amount of alternative energy—25 percent by 2025—that is proposed. At the same time, moving in that direction might not be bad. It just might be a question of whether we can accomplish that.”

Perhaps the biggest liability is history. Only twice in the last 40 years has the GOP nominated a first-time candidate to run for president—Gerald Ford was an incumbent president and George W. Bush a president’s son, lacking no name recognition. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain each had at least sought the nomination before.

Most polls, more scientific than the Values Voters straw poll, show Pawlenty in single digits. But that can change with time, and the GOP bench, for now, does not have one clear frontrunner heading toward 2012. Romney, Huckabee and Palin could each claim to be next in line. But each has liabilities: Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is still remembered most for his flip-flops during the 2008 race. While Pawlenty will not be the first choice of the Club for Growth, they’ll take him over Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who has a somewhat spotty record on economic issues. Many establishment Republicans fear that Palin, a former Alaska governor, is either unelectable or lacks gravitas. So Pawlenty could be a welcome new face, one with more experience than popular Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another likely 2012 contender.

Krinkie praised Pawlenty’s conservative, tax-cutting record and believes he will be a great campaigner. But he stressed a conservative governor can’t have everything he wants in a state like Minnesota.

“No matter where you are or what the circumstances are—you have to govern, to a certain extent, from the middle. Even President Obama is starting to learn that,” Krinkie said.

Based on what he said in his announcement last June that he would not seek a third term as governor, Pawlenty seems to have the determination to be competitive. “I’ve run a few marathons, and I believe in finishing strong.”


Fred Lucas

Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for CNSNews.com and a contributing editor for Townhall Magazine. He is the author of The Right Frequency: The Story of the Talk Radio Giants Who Shook Up the Political and Media Establishment.