At a time when his future plans cast a huge question mark over Minnesota politics, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's approval rating in the state is lower than it has ever been.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted last week found that 48 percent of the state's adults approve of the way he's handling his job, while 36 percent disapprove.
That's roughly where Minnesotans' assessment of him stood in September 2003, a time marked -- as now -- by painful state budget cuts and a sputtering economy. At that time, the governor's approval and disapproval ratings were 49 and 35 percent, respectively.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung responded by e-mail: "In light of the fact that the state leans DFL, the economy is challenged, and we're in the closing weeks of a tough session, a 12-point advantage for approval over disapproval shows that most Minnesotans support Gov. Pawlenty holding government accountable by controlling spending and keeping a lid on taxes."
The new ratings are a decline from last September, when 54 percent of Minnesotans gave Pawlenty's performance a thumbs-up at a time when his national profile had soared as a potential Republican vice-presidential candidate.
In the new poll, and others conducted recently by other polling organizations, Pawlenty has been hovering near what political analysts consider a danger zone, when a politician enjoys the support of fewer than half of respondents.
Pawlenty is widely considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012, though he has demurred about having any such plans. As for 2010, he hasn't revealed his intentions but has said he will announce sometime this year whether he will run for a third term as governor.
Pawlenty's emergence as a national Republican figure troubles some poll respondents who said they don't approve of the job he's doing. "I've got mixed emotions about Tim Pawlenty," said Dorothy Cojetin, 74, of St. Paul. "I think he's abandoned Minnesota for national politics. And him carping on no new taxes has hurt us, because there are a lot of things that have to be paid for."
But Corcoran resident Steve Dodge, 40, said Pawlenty "ought to be applauded for vetoing new taxes. I'm unemployed and so we're down to essentials. Government should be, too. But he increases fees -- C'mon, that's a tax, not smaller government."
Minnesotans with lower incomes, under $30,000 a year, are least likely to approve of Pawlenty's performance, with only 42 percent saying they approve of the job he's doing. Slightly more than half approve in all other income groups.
Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184