Tim Pawlenty begins a tough quest to fit between the party's center and the right, pundits say.
WASHINGTON - Facing a national gathering of College Republicans on Friday night, in his first major speech since announcing he won't seek another term as governor, Tim Pawlenty made clear that in them, he can see the party's future.
He can only hope that they see the same in him.
Widely perceived to be in the hunt for the White House in 2012, Pawlenty got plenty of buzz leading up to his keynote address at the College Republican National Convention, where he said, "We need your help, we need your leadership."
The stop, to be followed by an appearance at the Arkansas Republican Party's annual governor's dinner later this month, is seen by many observers as the start of Pawlenty's quest for a national base of contacts and money.
Starting behind a field of much better-known contenders, Pawlenty would need plenty of both.
For one, despite his runner-up status as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate last year, Pawlenty is hardly a household name outside Minnesota. For another, he's a long way from having any sort of lock on the party's influential conservative base.
"Minnesotans think of Pawlenty as a very conservative Republican," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, a leading national political analyst. "What always surprises them is the revelation that Pawlenty is a moderate in the national context of the Republican Party, and that's a problem."
Running as a Minnesota Republican can have its advantages, positioning Pawlenty as a two-term GOP governor of a Democratic-leaning state. "That ought to at least be considered by a party that's drowning," Sabato said.
There's no doubt that Pawlenty, a 48-year-old ex-College Republican, scored a coveted spot at a convention of young Republicans hungry for leadership and looking to get past last year's devastating electoral setbacks. To a standing ovation, he had them chanting "T-Paw" and "You Betcha," and joking about vacationing in Iowa, an early caucus state.
He also spoke at a luncheon of the Washington chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association and attended a reception with former McCain campaign aides and other GOP strategists, people who could be helpful on a future presidential campaign.
"The party's looking for that next generation of leadership, and we certainly see Pawlenty as somebody who can lead the party forward," said Charlie Smith, chairman of the College Republican National Committee. "He represents a new face in the party."
But the problem, as Sabato and others see it, is that despite Pawlenty's evangelical faith, the party's conservative wing may already be spoken for. Its heroes, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, already have devoted national followings.
Going forward, that leaves Pawlenty to graze the same fields as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, all conservative Republicans with centrist images and sophisticated political operations.
Pawlenty, while deflecting speculation about his presidential ambitions, has said he wants to be a part of the rigorous intra-party debate between conservative stalwarts and "big tent" Republicans. GOP strategists who know him well term him a solid conservative on social, fiscal and foreign policy. His budget battle with the DFL-led Legislature has only burnished his anti-tax credentials. But allies also see him as someone who can transcend labels with his patented "Sam's Club Republican" appeal, moving the party beyond the legacy of the Bush years and the 2008 electoral defeats.
"To the extent he can appeal to a broad swath of the electorate, it's an advantage," said Alex Conant, a former Republican National Committee spokesman who has been involved in Minnesota politics. Pawlenty, for his part, in an interview, labeled himself "a mainstream conservative in the Reagan tradition."
That would likely make Pawlenty a "fusion candidate" trying to fill the space between the center and right.
But however likeable and broad-based Pawlenty's appeal, the danger is in falling into the chasm between the Republican Party's moderates and conservatives. Raising money means cultivating motivated interest groups, party factions, and financial backers.
"What's the faction he can command? It's not obvious to me," said Steven Schier, a Carleton College professor of American politics. "Everybody's second choice means not enough money to run."
In the search for a national fundraising base, Pawlenty would be starting far behind his better-known rivals. New to the chase for cash and organization, he might as well be the charter member of his own Sam's Club Republican chapter.
"It's a big job, and he's starting from ground zero," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "Mitt Romney does not start from ground zero. Mike Huckabee doesn't start from ground zero. Even Sarah Palin doesn't start from ground zero."
Friday, while touting his blue-collar South St. Paul roots, he said that he has no plans to start his own political organization.
But one asset Pawlenty could bring to a future campaign is a fresh face on the national political scene. Even if he was an early supporter of McCain, he was denied a spot on the ticket and remains largely untainted by defeat in 2008, unlike much of the rest of the GOP field.
The fresh face strategy was certainly in play in a hotel ballroom full of college Republicans on Friday. "He's trying to appeal to the young, and that's what he's got to do," Sabato said. He also needs to fashion an appeal to minorities and educated suburbanites, significant demographic groups that abandoned the GOP in droves last year.
But first he needs to get known outside of the capital circle of political junkies and party activists. "He needs to spend time in Texas, California and Florida, making contacts," Rothenberg said. "He's got to go to places where there are a lot of Republicans, and a lot of Republican money."
Pawlenty will also likely need to spend a lot of time in Iowa, the first caucus state and neighbor the national media will expect him to win -- a high-pressure test for any presidential aspirant.
All of which would require time away from the office in the last 19 months of his term as governor, exposing him to Democratic charges that he is putting his national political ambitions above the interests of Minnesota. It's already become a DFL talking point in the budget showdown over his plan to balance the state budget through a process of "unallotment."
But Republicans say that if he's really running for president, he would be too smart to leave his flanks exposed at home, where he has long cultivated an image as a fiscal conservative. Said Conant: "To the extent he can cement that over the next 19 months and finish his term strong, that will be a testament to his abilities as a leader."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753