"Our values are under attack and under siege." These words, delivered by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty summed up the palpable feeling at a gala just a block away from the White House, days after President Barack Obama's health-care legislation passed in the House.
In many ways, the annual dinner for the Susan B. Anthony List was an awkward gathering. SBA List is the pro-life answer to Emily's List: Where Emily's raises money for candidates who back legal abortion, SBA List aims to elect those who oppose it. But despite the defeat and the sense of siege, Pawlenty lifted up the room -- humbly, realistically and generously. His speech sounded natural; even, at times, off-the-cuff.
"The laws and the court decisions and the like will change when hearts are changed and minds are changed," he declared. "And when we have enough people who have hearts and minds who share our views and values, that will translate into the change in the laws and the change in the courts that we know are right."
Pawlenty is not flashy. In fact, when he tries to jazz up his approach -- as he did with a Tiger Woods joke during a recent speech -- it doesn't quite work. If you compare him to other Minnesota politicians who have garnered national attention -- former governor Jesse Ventura and Sen. Al Franken come to mind -- he's positively Wonder Bread. If you compare him to Rep. Michele Bachmann, also a fellow Gopher Stater, he might look like a moderate. But declaring himself a "constitutional conservative," he's positioning himself firmly as a man of the Founding documents. He's not going to drive people wild like Sarah Palin does. But does a presidential candidate really need to?
Pawlenty needs to be viewed in the context of Obama. After a president who promised everything and nothing in the form of a lot of historic, comprehensive and broad -- yet pedestrian -- campaign rhetoric, and still ran a perpetual campaign after inauguration, people may be looking for someone a tad plainer, with a firm and concrete record. They may be looking for someone who stands for the Constitution, instead of state attorneys general suing over the landmark legislation of the current administration.