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Is Pawlenty Mr. Nice or Mr. Plausible?

Tim Pawlenty is set to formally announce his candidacy for the presidency on Monday and then concentrate on fundraising for a while as he tries to establish himself as the Republican who can not only win the nomination but also beat Barack Obama next year.

Pawlenty’s problem so far is that while he is well respected by political observers as a serious candidate, not too many people know the two-term governor outside of Minnesota. So unlike Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign rollout that sought to re-introduce (albeit disastrously) a household name to America, Pawlenty is trying to market himself to an electorate that has only a vague idea of who he is or what he stands for. The candidate’s mild-mannered demeanor and unwillingness to rant and rave is therefore something of a liability.

That was the upshot of a profile of Pawlenty is this week’s Time magazine titled “Mr. Nice Guy.” The niceness does come across in the piece. His public style is the antithesis of fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann and potential presidential rival, who is loud, brassy and quite willing to step on any toes that she thinks she could be crushed. Pawlenty is competing with Bachmann for the evangelical vote in Iowa (he’s one himself), a state that both of them need for the candidacies to survive. But his real competition is not the Tea Party heroine but the two other mainstream heavy-hitters, Mitt Romney and possible candidate Mitch Daniels.

Like those two fellow governors, Pawlenty can run on his fiscally conservative record. Though he bears the burden of having once been a supporter of environmental alarmist cap and trade bills (for which he has apologized), that is nothing compared to the handicap that Romney has on health care. What makes him potentially formidable is that he combines fiscal credentials that are essential this year with an evangelical background that is crucial to generating enthusiastic support from the party faithful. As those who watched his performance in the first GOP presidential debate earlier this month saw, Pawlenty’s manner is pleasant and earnest but also a little too slick which makes him sound a bit smarmy.

But the debate also established that, unlike the absent Daniels, who is a foreign policy novice, Pawlenty knows what he is talking about when he speaks about those issues. His quick and incisive criticism of President Obama’s Middle East speech yesterday was also a tribute to his grasp of the topic as well as a keen political instinct for weakness in an opponent.

If, as there is every reason to believe, the GOP presidential filled is virtually set with Daniels about to jump in and Sarah Palin, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan staying out, then Pawlenty needs only to keep his candidacy viable over the next few months to be considered a genuine contender. When you consider that Romney, though the candidate with the most money, has no chance of selling the public on his two-faced stand on health care, and that Daniels is an even duller speaker than Pawlenty and thoroughly unknowledgeable about anything other than budgets, the largely unknown Minnesotan’s path to the nomination seems less far-fetched.

In short, Pawlenty is running as Mr. Plausible, the man who is not as slick as Romney, not as boring as Daniels, not as flaky as Bachmann, not as extreme as Santorum and not as unacceptably moderate as Jon Huntsman. Like his “Minnesota nice” personality that seems just pleasant enough to please but not enough to excite, the former governor is hoping that his mediocrity will work in his favor.


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