Michael Gerson

Pawlenty is both less vivid and more conservative than Huckabee. In Minnesota, he was a budget balancing, anti-tax governor who presided over his own government shutdown. He received an "A" on the fiscal scorecard of the libertarian Cato Institute. Huckabee got a "D." The former Minnesota governor was introduced at the 2010 CPAC conference by Norquist, who stated that Pawlenty had "governed as a conservative."

But Pawlenty also governed as a reformer with populist instincts -- an approach he calls "Sam's Club Republicanism." As governor, he raised education standards, supported the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada, agreed to increase the state cigarette tax, proposed subsidies for alternative energy and pushed for innovative, market-based health reforms. This agenda allowed Pawlenty to win (narrow) victories in a blue state. "If you look," he has argued, "at the brilliance of Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln ... they weren't status quo people. They were change agents. They were populists -- with conservative credentials."

Pawlenty is currently attempting to demonstrate the "conservative credentials" portion of that formulation by appealing directly to tea party audiences. Given his admirable handicap of Minnesota niceness, Pawlenty's attempts at partisan outrage can seem awkward. He could get a "Don't Tread on Me" tattoo and still not secure a majority of tea party support. But gaining a significant minority is not hopeless. His fiscal credentials are strong. And many in the tea party movement -- by some estimates, nearly half -- are religious conservatives, of which Pawlenty is one. The strongest argument for Pawlenty's candidacy is his acceptability to some tea party voters, to mainstream Republicans and eventually to independents. His support may currently lack gusto, but it has great potential breadth.

In a general election, Pawlenty could return to populist themes with an ease many of his competitors could not. His blue-collar background gives him standing. His record as governor shows evidence of creative outreach -- the application of conservative and free-market ideas to the task of increasing economic mobility. He does not view empathy as an ideological crime.

Pawlenty will not be confused with William Jennings Bryan. But he may be the strongest Republican populist who can also secure his party's nomination.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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