Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty talked up Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's chances in the emerging Republican presidential race, saying his fellow Midwesterner is best situated to challenge former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Jeb clearly is the establishment candidate, and he's raised a boatload of money," Pawlenty said Friday at the University of Minnesota. But in a national GOP fragmented between what's left of the establishment, neoconservatives, libertarians, tea partiers, social conservatives and others, Pawlenty said Walker is best situated to straddle that factionalization.
"Scott is from a Midwestern state, but he's got a national profile and national fundraising capabilities," Pawlenty said, norting Walker's successful efforts to weaken labor union power in Wisconsin.
Drawing parallels between their experiences, Palenty said Walker's success in a Democratic-leaning state has taught him how to speak to moderate voters.
"If you're governing in MInnesota or Wisconsin, there's a common sense craft in how you make common sense arguments using conservative principles," Pawlenty said. "Scott's conservative, but he doesn't scare the establishment."
Now working as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington-based lobbying group for banks, Pawlenty said he's not ready to endorse a GOP candidate but did not rule out doing so. He did have scathing comments for one prominent Republican, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
In 2008, Pawlenty and Palin were both finalists to be running mate to Sen. John McCain; Palin won out. At the time, Pawlenty said, he didn't know what to make of her. He later made up his mind.
"One of the criteria is, you have to be able to do the job" of president, Pawlenty said. "You have to be qualified and prepared. I don't think that Gov. Palin would be viewed by the country or should be viewed by the country as a wise selection to be president."
Pawlenty's appearance at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs was mostly a Q-and-A session with former state House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who now teaches there. Sviggum and Pawlenty were close allies in the late '90s and early '00s, when Sviggum led the House and Pawlenty was his deputy.
Elected governor in 2002, Pawlenty narrowly won a second term in 2006 -- still the last time a Republican has won a statewide race in Minnesota. Pawlenty said he thinks Minnesota has shifted a little to the left since then, and he said the state Republican Party must "market itself better" to new groups of voters.
Pawlenty talked little about his failed 2012 bid for president, where he flamed out early in a crowded field of Republican contenders. "Just about everything we did" was a mistake, he said, particularly the decision to spend limited campaign resources on winning a straw poll of Iowa caucus voters.
While repeatedly describing himself as "politically retired," Pawlenty weighed in on a number of state and national issues. He spoke most about education policy, a favorite issue during his time as governor.
The closest Pawlenty came to commenting on a current issue before the Legislature was to voice support for changing Minnesota's seniority-based system for hiring and firing teachers. A bill to scrap that system recently passed the state House, but faces a skeptical audience with Pawlenty's DFL successor, Gov. Mark Dayton.
Still, Pawlenty declined to criticize Dayton.
"I try not to comment on the current governor because it always annoyed me when former governors weighed in," Pawlenty said. "It's like, shut the hell up."
Like a good politician, Pawlenty refused to completely rule out a future run for office, but tried to discourage speculation that he might. Dayton is not running again in 2018, leaving an opening in Pawlenty's old job, and both of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats are currently held by Democrats.
"I had a full run at it," Pawlenty said. But noting he's still a relatively young 54, he added: "I don't ultimately know what the future holds."