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WASHINGTON - Coming in the midst of a nationwide call for civility in the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's moderate tone and calm delivery may have given him a fresh purchase on his national ambitions.
Signing books Thursday at a Barnes & Noble four blocks from the White House, the Minnesota Republican bantered easily with about 200 well-wishers, including a small child who pushed a stuffed animal his way.
"Mostly, I get a sense of authenticity," said Kevin O'Brien, a Washington attorney who had come to buy Pawlenty's book, "Courage to Stand." "There's not a lot of pretension. He seems to have a middle-America kind of approach."
Pawlenty and his handlers could hardly hope for a better takeaway than that, particularly coming from a customer who described himself as a political independent.
Hearkening back to another Minnesota presidential hopeful, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey, O'Brien added, "he has the quality of an optimist, a 'happy warrior.'"
After blitzing the talk-show circuit in New York, Pawlenty came to Washington to begin a new public phase in his yearlong effort to raise his national profile. He chatted up downtown shoppers and addressed a packed room of journalists and Washington insiders at the National Press Club, where he called the overheated rhetoric from both sides "very corrosive, not just to the debate, but to democracy more generally."
Even before the shootings focused media attention on outspoken Tea Party figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, ABC's "Nightline" did a flattering profile depicting Pawlenty's mild manner as the "anti-Palin."
"He's doing extraordinarily well under unexpectedly difficult circumstances, the week when we're all talking about the Tucson massacre," said former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican.
Weber, part of Pawlenty's inner circle of advisers, said he had given thought to canceling the tour after last Saturday's assassination attempt on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Instead, the contrast between Pawlenty's tempered pronouncements and the rancorous national debate has been a plus, Weber said.
"What people find is a guy who has a unifying persona," he said. "That's very helpful right now. He's not a divider. ... That would have come through whenever he announced, but this week it's a very valuable commodity."
Making his first appearance at the National Press Club since he was on the short list of vice presidential contenders in 2008, Pawlenty had kind words for Palin, a potential rival for the GOP nomination for president in 2012.
"She's a remarkable leader," he said, saying her executive experience as Alaska governor is often undervalued.
Pawlenty also defended Arizona Sen. John McCain's decision to make Palin his running mate in 2008, often seen as a slight to Pawlenty.
Given the financial collapse in the waning months of the Bush presidency, Pawlenty said, "I don't think it was really going to matter who [McCain] picked as his running mate."
As he did throughout much of his New York talk-show blitz this week, Pawlenty devoted much of his National Press Club speech to tracing the roots of his fiscal conservatism to his humble origins as the son of a truck driver and the first in his family to attend college.
While the story has been told before, Pawlenty watchers said his public speaking has grown more animated and dynamic. "There's a fervency there," said former Metropolitan Airports Commission Chairwoman Vicki Tigwell, now a Virginia resident who came to Pawlenty's book signing.
Recalling the loss of manufacturing and other "strong-back" jobs since he grew up around the stockyards in South St. Paul, Pawlenty spoke passionately about pro-business policies he says will encourage job creation.
Tigwell, who has known Pawlenty since his days in South St. Paul, said that while he has yet to establish a national presence, his image of civility will serve him well in the nation's polarized political climate. "The thing he has going for him is people like him, particularly in this time when everybody's talking about civil discourse," she said. "That's been his style his whole life. It's not a change he has to make."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753 Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.