ST. CLOUD - Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave Minnesota a sloppy Valentine on Wednesday, telling a hand-picked audience at the St. Cloud Civic Center that we have an "unstoppable forward momentum toward greatness."

Greatness was the message of his State of the State Address -- delivered to a small audience of invited big shots (and 75 empty seats). But four blocks away, at the Ace Bar & Grill on E. St. Germain Street, greatness was not apparent to a cross-section of Granite City residents who were eating lunch and who didn't get invited to hear the Tim Talk.

Let's call this report the State of the Ace. It won't be as flowery as the State of the State, but it will have true grit. The State of the Ace is reality-based.

Listen to a 58-year-old food server named Janice Brownie who earns $6.15 an hour, plus tips, hustling plates of food to the customers. How's the state of your state, Janice? I asked.

"People are hurting," she said, filling water glasses. "My husband and I are way behind on our fuel bill, our health insurance is going up, our daughter got cut off her medical. ... We can hardly make it."

Brownie's husband, Frank, is a school custodian.

Frank just got a raise, but a hike in the couple's health-care premium meant his take-home pay is $100 less a month than before the raise. Meanwhile, Janice's daughter, Marie, who also is a waitress, lost her medical assistance after asking for more hours of work to try to make ends meet. Marie has asthma, but only takes half the meds she should be using, because she can't afford the co-pays.

And Janice has been postponing neck and back surgery.

"There's no way I can afford time off," she said. "Eight weeks with no income? Zero? Right. That would break us."

In the dining room, "splurging" on a lunch out, Don and Carol Borman were eating chow mein. Don, 79, worked for Burlington Northern until his job went away. Carol was a registered nurse for 45 years. Last year, Don and Carol spent almost $5,000 of their limited income on medications.

"We don't go anywhere," Don said. "We used to like to go to the casino, but there's no money for that now," Carol added. "We've cut way back."

What about Tim Pawlenty, I asked. How's he look to you?

"He's spending too much time running for vice president," Carol said. "I think his mind is too much on that, and not enough on Minnesota. That's my thought."

She may be right.

Yesterday's State of the State had none of the palm trees and gold seals of last year's T-Paw Toga Party at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. But it didn't have much zest, either. Pawlenty -- John McCain's leg man and rumored veep candidate -- has spent more weekends carrying water buckets than a Gophers team manager.

Meanwhile, jobs are going away and home values are falling while property taxes skyrocket. Health care and highways are crumbling, a billion-dollar deficit looms, and foreclosures are creating a housing crisis the likes of which we haven't seen since the Dust Bowl. It might be a good time to get out of Minnesota and measure the drapes in the Vice Presidential Bunker.

Was anyone speaking of bridges? Pawlenty hardly did. He devoted just two sentence fragments to last summer's collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. Maybe he had to bite his lip because the venue for his speech was a bit awkward.

The Hwy. 23 bridge over the Mississippi -- which has the same design and many of the problems of the I-35W bridge -- was visible from the Civic Center auditorium, a stark reminder of a deadly disaster.

Last I looked, it was still up.

"I like the fact he wants to keep spending down," said a St. Cloud State University professor named John Hotz, who was having lunch at the Ace with another professor, Dorothy Renn. "The thing I don't like is, we've had a bridge collapse. We might be in a situation where it's not realistic to just say you'll never raise taxes. My preference is that he wouldn't. But we have a lot of problems."

Yes, sir. We do.

On the front page of yesterday's St. Cloud Times: A $1.5 million budget cut in the Sauk Rapids-Rice school district, forcing kids from K through Grade 5 to walk a mile to school (up to 2 miles for Grade 6 and up), and doubling the $120 activity fee.

"I was educated in the South," said Renn. "So when I got to Minnesota, I thought I was in the Promised Land. We treated education well, and funded it well. I don't want to see that slide. But it has. We have begun to slide."

There you have it, my fellow citizens: The State of The Ace.

Minnesota has unstoppable momentum, alright. But it's not forward.

Nick Coleman •