A moderate Republican governor in a Democratic-leaning state wins reelection, and the national chatterers are ready to anoint him with the next GOP presidential nomination.

Remember 2006 and Tim Pawlenty?

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is basking this week in the capricious national political spotlight, having clobbered a longtime legislative Democrat (shades of Roger Moe in 2002) to win a second term. He’s being praised for his outspoken candor and bipartisan pragmatism, and hailed as well-positioned for a presidential run.

If Christie agrees, he might want to take a lesson from the presidential quest of Minnesota’s former Repubican governor. Pawlenty too enjoyed national notice and presidential mentions after winning his second term in 2006, otherwise a good year for Democrats. He too was seen as a pragmatic Republican, conservative on social issues but susceptible to striking a deal on higher cigarette taxes – er, “health impact fees” – with DFLers in the Legislature.

But Pawlenty evidently decided that to play in the national arena, he needed to shore up his conservative credentials. As a result, not even a bridge collapse in 2007 or a massive budget shortfall in 2009 could get him to raise taxes. When he finally ran for president in 2011, he criticized former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for enacting a state health care exchange, something Pawlenty himself had proposed for Minnesota four years earlier, then dropped.

When Pawlenty’s presidential bid faltered, among the defects in his candidacy those same national pundits cited were continuing doubts about his sincerity as the deep-red conservative he said he had become.  

Christie appears clever enough to know that his popularity rests in large part on his reputation for authenticity. If he really wants to be president, he should ignore calls to recast himself in a more conservative light.