Steve Chapman

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- When you pick up a glossy, multi-page color brochure at a presidential campaign event, you expect to see a candidate's image on the front. The ones stacked on a table inside the Sports Page Grill, where Tim Pawlenty is appearing this morning, do feature that sort of photo. But it's not of Pawlenty. It's of Barack Obama.

This choice does not reflect a heroic sublimation of ego. The headline on the flier says, "Leadership isn't about fancy speeches and empty promises." Pawlenty wants to convey a simple message: He is nothing like Obama, and that's an excellent thing.

The candidate, who is spending the week touring Iowa in an RV, stands in front of a banner reading "Results. Not Rhetoric." The contrast highlights his strength, his record as a two-term governor of Minnesota, while reminding voters of the limits of oratorical talent.

"We got into this mess, in large measure, because we elected somebody as president of the United States who had no executive experience," he tells an audience of 40 people. "And then he went into the Oval Office, and we wonder why it's not working."

Voters who want a candidate to make their legs tingle, his approach implies, are welcome to go elsewhere. But those who want a candidate to get things done -- conservative things -- need look no further.

He recites his achievements: In Minnesota, he "took spending from historic highs to historic lows." During his time, it was one of the first states to implement merit pay for public school teachers. He curbed public employee compensation "before it was cool." He got reforms in state workers' health care coverage that empowered patients and reduced costs.

The list goes on, but the point has been made. "I'm not just up here flapping my jaws," Pawlenty informs the crowd. "I did it."

Believe it or not, his claims largely check out. During his time as governor, the state's spending growth, which had averaged more than 10 percent annually for decades, was cut to less than 1.7 percent. During a Twin Cities transit strike, he extracted significant union concessions on retirement benefits.

Not that he is beyond the usual feints and dodges. Asked what federal agencies he would eliminate, this implacable budget-cutter comes up with none. He blithely announces that "we can't let Iran have a nuclear weapon," without acknowledging that stopping it may require a major war with an uncertain outcome.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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