Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty talked up Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s chances Friday in the emerging Republican presidential race, saying his fellow Midwesterner is best situated to challenge former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
“Jeb clearly is the establishment candidate, and he’s raised a boatload of money,” Pawlenty said. But in a national GOP fragmented between the establishment, libertarians, tea partiers, foreign policy neoconservatives, social conservatives and others, Pawlenty said Walker has what it takes.
“Scott is from a Midwestern state, but he’s got a national profile and national fundraising capabilities,” Pawlenty said, noting Walker’s successful efforts to weaken labor union power in Wisconsin. Drawing parallels between their experiences, Pawlenty said Walker’s success in a Democratic-leaning state has taught him how to speak to moderate voters.
“If you’re governing in Minnesota or Wisconsin, there’s a craft in how you make common sense arguments using conservative principles,” Pawlenty said, and he believes Walker has mastered it.
Now working as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington-based lobbying group for banks, Pawlenty said he’s not ready to endorse a GOP candidate but did not rule out doing so eventually. He did have scathing comments for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has said she’s considering a run.
In 2008, Pawlenty and Palin were both finalists to be vice presidential running mate to Sen. John McCain; Palin won out. At the time, Pawlenty said, he didn’t know what to make of her. He knows now.
“One of the criteria is, you have to be able to do the job,” Pawlenty said. “You have to be qualified and prepared. I don’t think that Gov. Palin would be viewed by the country, or should be viewed by the country, as a wise selection to be president.”
Pawlenty’s appearance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs was in a question-and-answer session with former state House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who now teaches there. Sviggum and Pawlenty were close political allies in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when Sviggum led the House and Pawlenty was his majority leader.
Elected governor in 2002, Pawlenty was narrowly re-elected in 2006. That marked the last time a Republican won a statewide race in Minnesota. Pawlenty said he thinks the state has shifted a little to the left since then and that the state Republican Party must “market itself better” to new groups of voters.
Pawlenty talked little about his failed 2012 bid for president, when he flamed out early in a crowded field of Republicans. “Just about everything we did” was a mistake, he said, particularly the decision to spend limited campaign resources on winning a straw poll of Iowa caucus voters.
While repeatedly describing himself as “politically retired,” Pawlenty weighed in on a number of state and national issues. He spoke most about education policy, a favorite issue during his time as governor.
Pawlenty declined to criticize his successor, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
“I try not to comment on the current governor because it always annoyed me when former governors weighed in,” Pawlenty said. “It’s like, ‘Shut the hell up.’ ”
Like any smart politician, Pawlenty refused to rule out a future run for office even as he dampened speculation he might try to stage a comeback.
“I had a full run at it,” Pawlenty said. But, noting he’s still relatively young at 54, he added: “I don’t ultimately know what the future holds.”