Speaking in Washington, Pawlenty said the GOP needs to recast its traditional image in positive terms.
WASHINGTON - Gov. Tim Pawlenty rolled out his "Sam's Club Republican" brand to a national audience Wednesday, making two well-covered speeches calling for a more hopeful message to check recent Democratic electoral gains.
Pawlenty, billed by the National Press Club as a top contender to run for vice president with GOP candidate John McCain, said Republicans must broaden their appeal to a new generation of "Reagan Democrats" -- the same young and working-class voters being targeted by presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
Sketching a profile that in many ways describes himself, the 47-year-old governor said a new generation of Republican leadership is needed to find new ways to engage voters who are worried about the future but who see the GOP as a party of business elites.
"We want to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club," he said, using a line he has adopted often in recent months as he becomes increasingly active as a national co-chairman and leading fundraiser in the McCain campaign.
Earlier in the day, at a separate gathering at GOPAC, a Republican group that served as a catalyst of the 1994 Republican Revolution, Pawlenty said: "The Republican idea factory has been a little stagnant in the last decade."
Both of Pawlenty's appearances drew strong news coverage, a sign of the growing interest in his prospects as a running mate who would complement McCain's image as a Republican maverick, albeit a graying one. But Pawlenty, as usual, declined to address the veep question. Asked what quality he thinks is the most important in a running mate, Pawlenty answered, "Discretion."
Updating the appeal
Much of Pawlenty's message is framed in terms of updating the popular appeal of former President Ronald Reagan, an enduring party hero known for his "Morning in America" optimism. But, as Pawlenty noted, more than 25 years have passed since Reagan was first elected.
Pawlenty's "Sam's Club" brand is a consciously market-driven metaphor for what he believes should be a market-oriented party catering to "consumers" with private-sector solutions to national problems.
"You can't define progress as how much more can government do," Pawlenty told the Press Club audience, an appearance that was covered by several television networks, C-SPAN and public radio.
But in Pawlenty's view, the Republican Party's traditional message of limited government, low taxes and fiscal discipline needs to be recast in positive terms that avoid scorn and cynicism about government.
"People deserve, and expect, a more effective government at a better price," he said.
The Sam's Club reference, he said, should also be part of an effort to shed the GOP stereotype that it's not for "the working person," as well as to emphasize that tax-averse Republicans can give voters "more value" for their money.
Part of that appeal can already be seen in the GOP's renewed push for expanded oil exploration, based on growing public anxiety about gas prices. "It's right in the soft spot," Pawlenty said. "If you can't get your gas tank filled ..."
Comments about Obama
Pawlenty nodded to Obama's appeal outside traditional Democratic constituencies, though in terms that praised the Illinois Democrat's oratory, not his substance. "Say what you will about Barack Obama, and I say a lot of negative things about him," Pawlenty said. "People gravitate when you've got something positive to say."
The Obama campaign in Minnesota responded with a statement noting that Pawlenty had more "kind words" for Obama than for Republican ideas.
But Pawlenty's compliment to Obama was tempered by his echo of the McCain camp's critique of the Democrat's experience. "He's never really engaged in a leadership fashion on a matter of national significance," Pawlenty said of Obama. "He really doesn't have the requisite experience, wisdom and judgment to be the commander-in-chief."
Pawlenty also defended a recent McCain campaign television ad comparing Obama to celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, who has responded with a spoof of her own.
While some critics have cast the McCain ad as a descent into negative tactics, Pawlenty said it has a role in his new brand of GOP politics.
"Sam's Club shoppers appreciate authenticity," he said.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2723