Pawlenty trying to plant his name with Iowans

Minnesota's governor spoke to 500 Republicans.

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Governor Tim Pawlenty

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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DES MOINES - As Iowa farmers harvested the last of their fall crops, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty arrived in their state this weekend to sow the political seeds he may need to spring from Midwestern obscurity to Republican presidential hopeful.

Saturday's address to about 500 Iowa Republicans was his first crack at the state's GOP early deciders as a potential 2012 candidate.

In a speech littered with pop culture and sports references -- to the movie "Talladega Nights," basketball player Michael Jordan and Viking Brett Favre -- Pawlenty gave a pep talk to the Iowans who could influence whether he can succeed three years from now.

Pawlenty presented Iowans with a man whose eyes are clearly on President Obama and the federal government. He even made his own play on Obama's campaign chant of "Fired up and ready to go."

"Are you fired up? Are you ready to fight back?" Pawlenty asked the crowd. He accused Democrats of "acting like a manure-spreader in a windstorm."

So far, the party faithful and Republican voters nationwide have been slow to warm to the man who calls himself TPaw. Although he has crisscrossed the country raising his profile, become a voice for the right and begun wooing GOP cash for a political action committee, his star has yet to rise, according to recent polls.

In national polls, "Pawlenty who?" has been a common refrain and even Iowa Republican activists said before Pawlenty's speech that they knew little of the Minnesota governor.

Good reviews out of Iowa could start to change that. Pawlenty's speech in an Iowa State Fair building -- televised on C-SPAN3 and taken as confirmation of his interest in running for president -- has given him a chance to woo potential 2012 caucusgoers and national politics watchers alike.

Was Pawlenty's speech a 2012 message?

"It is almost never too early to read things into Iowa," said David Kochel, a senior Republican political consultant in Iowa who worked with former Gov. Mitt Romney's 2008 campaign. "It would be a good time for him to come in and test the message and see what's working."

It will be two years before Iowans make their voices heard in the next election's delegate selection fight. But potential challengers to the Democratic president have already started the long pre-presidential preparation.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won last year's Iowa caucus, has been back and is in town today; GOP Rep. Ron Paul is coming next week and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's will-she-or-won't-she visit has made folks take notice.

"In some ways, they have to be putting together the infrastructure of it probably in the next year," said John Bloom, chairman of Iowa's Polk County Republicans.

Pawlenty starts his potential Iowa caucus bid with regional and stylistic advantages. Although he lacks the burning rhetoric of some Republican hopefuls, he can use his low-key Midwestern manner and fiscal message as a hook in Iowa.

"Iowa and Minnesota don't look all that different culturally," Kochel said.

That profile was appealing to Stacy Tharp, a Republican from eastern Iowa.

"I think we need a strong conservative who can also appeal to a liberal base," Tharp said after Pawlenty's speech. The governor fits that need, she said.

Wanted: a true conservative

Iowa Republican activists have long looked for social conservatives to lead them, and Huckabee last year led that pack. Given the state of the economy, fiscal issues -- where Pawlenty has made his mark -- are also coming to the fore.

"We want a true conservative," said Republican National Committeewoman Kim Lehman, who in her day job is president of Iowa Right to Life.

During his speech, Pawlenty spoke much of fiscal issues but got perhaps his biggest applause for saying he had to thank and acknowledge God.

In the past, some on the right have questioned if Pawlenty is the right man to fit that mold. But he has come out hard on issues of importance to conservatives -- even questioning the Republican credentials of a sitting senator last week, a comment he later said was inartful -- and has become a powerful talking head for their causes.

His national appearances have gotten him noticed, but Iowa activists said they wanted to know more.

"I know who he is, but I don't know that much about him. I guess that's one of the reasons we're here," Richard Gorden, chairman of the Appanoose County Republicans, said while waiting to get into the "Leadership for Iowa" event.

At the Iowa State Fairgrounds, the focus was not all on the man from Eagan.

Pawlenty's speech was plopped in the middle of presentations from Iowa officials and 2010 gubernatorial candidates.

"I think Iowans are as into long-term speculation as probably any group, but we have elections to win in Iowa next year, and I suspect that's what they're focused on," said Terry Nelson, an Iowa native and former (John) McCain 2008 strategist and Bush-Cheney 2004 political director. He, like fellow Iowa native and political operative Sara Taylor, is a senior adviser to Pawlenty's national political fundraising efforts.

Pawlenty insists his focus, too, is on 2010, not 2012 ambitions.

Marv Haack and his daughter drove several hours to get to the GOP event -- largely to see the 2010 gubernatorial candidates. But he was also interested in hearing from Pawlenty. After the governor spoke, Haack gave the Minnesotan high marks: "He's a great speaker."

For many Iowans, Pawlenty isn't a focus at all.

Like others not attending the event, Mike Robinson wasn't thinking about the 2012 presidential race. The owner of Fairgound Hardware, a stone's throw from where Pawlenty was slated to make his Iowa debut, said business is soft and he's worried that the federal government has taken on too much -- too much world policing, too much debt and too many people's problems.

He's a registered Democrat who voted for McCain last year and would think about voting for Palin if she ran in 2012.

And Tim Pawlenty? He'd heard the name, he said.

"He's a gubernatorial hopeful in Illinois, isn't he?" Robinson asked between helping customers at his store. No, he was told, he's governor of Minnesota.

"Oh," he said. "I knew I'd heard of him."

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

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