Pawlenty takes a right turn

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2009 - 10:36 PM

As the governor's national profile rises, GOP activists say he appears to be working hard to get the attention of the party's conservatives.

He just moved to block ACORN funding in Minnesota.

Last week, he called fears over so-called death panels "legitimate" and "not irrational," and floated the notion that asserting states' rights under the 10th Amendment might be a "viable option" to block federal health reform.

He kicked off the month labeling President Obama's address to schoolchildren "uninvited" and questioning the motive.

All are recent pronouncements from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and all suggest a distinct shift of tone to the right.

For two terms as governor, Pawlenty worked to cast himself in the public eye as a conservative with one foot planted in the political center -- a strategy that attracted the statewide support crucial to his close wins in Minnesota.

Now widely believed to be testing a potential presidential run, Pawlenty is making public statements and taking stands likely to gain him some notice by the conservatives who will determine which candidate will rise from the GOP pack as their nominee.

Pawlenty maintains there is nothing different or right wing about his recent comments. "I don't think any of those are extreme positions, and most of them are embraced on a bipartisan basis," Pawlenty said. "These in particular are just common sense, bread-and-butter issues." He dismissed the "premise that somehow all this is for 2012."

But Republican leaders say they feel a shift in focus. It's a different tone and different issues for the governor, said Bill Morris, a pollster and former state Republican Party chair.

"The vocabulary is getting more hard-right," Morris said. "He really is taking fairly hot-button positions on key conservative issues."

Making headway

With more than a half-dozen Republicans already testing runs for an election more than three years away, getting noticed in that crowd looms large for any presidential hopeful.

"You aren't going to make any headway as a newcomer like Tim Pawlenty unless you are viewed as conservative among the rank and file," said Brian Sullivan, a Republican national committeeman for Minnesota.

After some of his initial comments, Pawlenty has adjusted a bit as more information emerged.

Within hours of his strongly worded directive "to stop all state funding to ACORN" this week, his administration said there was no evidence ACORN was currently receiving state money, although it has in the past.

Claims that "death panels" -- committees of bureaucrats who would decide who should get medical care and who shouldn't -- are tucked into federal health reform legislation have been discredited by independent fact-checkers, and Pawlenty admitted they wouldn't be "directly" created by the legislation.

Shortly after his states' rights statement, Pawlenty added that he did not envision Minnesota filing a legal challenge to invoke the 10th Amendment. After Obama delivered his school address, Pawlenty said he "did a nice job."

To Minnesota DFL chair Brian Melendez, that shows Pawlenty seems to be "making politically expedient claims without any factual basis."

But Pawlenty's routine has been a hit with his intended audience.

His political schedule is packed and his mentions on political sites are frequent. Tonight he will speak at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., a regular stop for GOP contenders, and will be included in its 2012 presidential straw poll. He was not on their list of speakers last year. This year he shares the straw poll with fellow Republicans Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Mike Pence, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. On Saturday he will appear before the Ohio GOP, later this month at a gathering of Michigan Republicans and next month at the Western Conservative Political Action Conference.

Fodder for the left

While the right has embraced the man from Eagan, his prominent comments have provided fresh ammo for detractors on the left.

This month, the Democratic National Committee released a Web video titled "Tim Pawlenty: In the Extreme," which described him as "way out of the mainstream," and "spreading lies about health reform."

"We absolutely have him in our sights now," said Frank Benenati, spokesman for the DNC. The national organization will add resources to track what Benenati said are Pawlenty's "lies."

But Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota, said Pawlenty has been intelligent in his comments and "he's not said anything that is irresponsible." Weber was policy chair for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the last presidential race and hasn't picked a favorite for 2012.

If Pawlenty is to have a national political career once he leaves the governor's office next year, Morris said, he may need more than his appeal to conservatives on economic issues and his pitch to make Republicans the party of "Sam's Club."

"He's going to have play to the national delegates and the national delegates are very, very far right," said Morris, who described himself as a moderate in the current makeup of the Republican Party.

Pawlenty has had to prove his conservative credentials before to squeak by with his first gubernatorial endorsement in 2002. But he has never had so large an audience on so many national issues before.

His recent opinions have kept his name to the front of that audience and are regularly picked up by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and other national news outlets. Ben Smith, a writer for the online news site Politico, recently wrote that Pawlenty is "suddenly all over whatever's on cable any given day."

"This is the agenda that is served up to him right now," Weber said of Pawlenty's quick comments off the national news. They are also positions that will resonate well with conservatives, according to national polls and pundits.

In a talk radio-blogosphere-cable news environment where extreme banter often seizes the day, Pawlenty has still tried to bring nuance on some volatile issues.

About South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie" outburst during Obama's speech to Congress last week, Pawlenty first said it was "inappropriate and unfortunate."

But he also said the underlying issue -- Wilson's contention that federal health care legislation could give illegal immigrants access to health insurance -- has merit, even though independent fact checkers have found the House version of the bill explicitly forbids federal money from being spent on health care for illegal immigrants.

That wasn't enough to convince Pawlenty. Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, he questioned whether those words would be enough to prevent it if the bill lacks an enforcement mechanism.

"If you have a law that isn't enforced, it isn't much of a law," he said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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