Pawlenty courts evangelicals

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 6, 2011 - 10:02 PM

As he pushes his book, the former governor is reaching out to the key GOP voting bloc.

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Potential GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty has been signing his book around the country, including before a City Club of Chicago luncheon last week.

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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As former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty continues a whirlwind tour promoting his new memoir and testing the 2012 presidential waters, he's taking great care in courting a key political constituency: evangelical Christians.

An avowed evangelical himself, Pawlenty is among several prospective Republican presidential candidates with strong faith backgrounds vying to win over the influential voting bloc, credited with helping George W. Bush get elected twice.

Pawlenty has recently given interviews to two major evangelical media outlets, Christianity Today and Christian Broadcasting Network, in addition to making stops at Christian bookstores across the country where he's signed copies of his memoir "Courage to Stand.''

Pawlenty's faith and its influence in his public life are referenced frequently throughout the memoir, which came out last month and is being distributed by evangelical publisher Tyndale House Publishing.

Religious scholars say it may turn out to be an effective strategy because many evangelicals remain unfamiliar with Pawlenty, who still lacks the national name recognition of other potential GOP candidates such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

To differentiate himself, Pawlenty must work on better "connecting" with evangelicals and establishing a more charismatic presence, said Richard Land, president of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. "He's a really nice guy. But he doesn't move crowds the way some others do. It's been my experience charisma is something that, you know it when you see it. Michele Bachmann's got it. Huckabee's got it. ... Obama's got it. Bill Clinton's got it."

"They're [evangelicals] not going to nominate someone who they think can't beat Barack Obama,'' said Land. "They're going to want the strongest pro-life, pro-family candidate ... who's strong on defense. They want a candidate who is an economic conservative.'' Addressing his faith in his memoir and with Christian media outlets will play an important part in winning over evangelicals, said D. Michael Lindsey, author of "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."

"A lot of political pundits assume it's about reaching out to pastors,'' said Lindsey. "It's really not. Evangelical pastors are by and large circumspect to enter the political fray.

"It's much more about reaching out to venues like Christianity Today."

In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Pawlenty tried to distinguish himself from the other evangelical candidates. "One thing I would say is that it's important that words and deeds match up,'' he said. "It's important to look at people's records in public office and see if they've done what they've said they'd do. Also look at their background and the life that they've lived."

Pawlenty's online calendar shows continued bookstore appearances the rest of this month. And in March, he'll be among the potential GOP presidential candidates participating in a forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Pawlenty writes in his memoir about growing up in a Catholic family in St. Paul but later converting to his wife Mary's evangelical faith. For decades, both have attended Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, led by the Rev. Leith Anderson, who also serves as president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The influential group represents more than 45,000 local churches with close to 30 million members.

Having such close ties with Anderson and the church certainly doesn't hurt Pawlenty, religious scholars said. Anderson did not respond to an interview request.

Carl Nelson, president of the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals and board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, sees Pawlenty's relationship with Anderson as having a "neutral effect."

"I think having a connection to the NAE certainly is a positive," Nelson said.

But the Wooddale leadership has been " disciplined and careful not to leverage a relationship like that,'' said Nelson. "They've been very clear the purpose of their church is to achieve their mission and not get involved in politics."

Unlike some conservative religious politicians, Pawlenty does not wear his faith on this sleeve, although he does make reference to it in speeches and other facets of public life.

Among his competition, Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister who captured much of the evangelical vote in the 2008 primaries. Romney is a Mormon who didn't win over evangelical leaders en masse in his 2008 presidential bid. Sarah Palin is a nondenominational Christian who's begun to align herself with the family of evangelist Billy Graham (She recently went to Haiti with Graham's son Franklin).

Different kinds of evangelicals will be drawn to the candidates, Lindsey said.

"For the person who's a more traditional culture warrior, Mike Huckabee is more familiar,'' said Lindsey. "He comes from the South, and he seems to have a longer track record of championing the traditional values of evangelicals.

"Mitt Romney appeals to an evangelical whose top priority is running the White House and thinks that bringing together the social conservatives and the economic conservatives is vital to a strong Republican candidate.

"Pawlenty appeals to a younger evangelical, one who cares about issues beyond abortion and same-sex marriage like ... the environment,'' Lindsey said. "He's seen as a fresher face. He's not a brash or harsh evangelical. He seems to embody this ... authentic Christian faith. Evangelicals, if anything, have become well-trained on picking up on religious phonies."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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