By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
AMES, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty told Iowa residents Wednesday that the prestige of the state caucuses is riding on the experience of the winner chosen during the leadoff nominating contest next February.
Without mentioning his home-state rival, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota governor said some candidates give good speeches but lack the record of governing that is necessary to take on President Barack Obama.
"Is Iowa going to maintain its leadership place in terms of the wisdom and selection of the candidate who can not just be good that day in Iowa, but can be our party's nominee and can be president of the United States?" Pawlenty told about 50 Republican activists in Clear Lake at the outset of a two-day campaign trip to the state. "We've got people who come through town and give great speeches. But the fact of the matter is the words fall flat."
The former governor was making his first visit to Iowa since a poll showed him last month with the support of only 6 percent of likely Republican Iowa caucus-goers, despite a year and a half of setting up a network. The same poll showed Bachmann, a presidential prospect for only six months, nearly matching national GOP poll leader Mitt Romney for the lead in Iowa.
Drawing on eight years as Minnesota's governor, Pawlenty argued that he had tackled the very issues awaiting the next president, especially curbing government spending and stabilizing entitlement programs.
"Everybody's going to say they can, but I did it in Minnesota," he said.
Pawlenty's new message of record over rhetoric, introduced in an Iowa television ad Tuesday, comes as he is beginning an important July push to court Republican activists to attend the state GOP's straw poll in Ames next month. The event, expected to draw thousands of party regulars to Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum on Aug. 13, is viewed as an early test of caucus campaign strength.
Pawlenty has said he needs to "win or do very well in the caucuses," scheduled to begin the 2012 GOP nominating sequence in February in order to stay in the hunt for the nomination.
He planned to meet privately Wednesday afternoon with about 30 influential Republican activists in Iowa Falls before headlining a Story County GOP dinner in Ames. Pawlenty is scheduled to hold more private meetings and headline a public campaign event in the Des Moines area on Thursday.
Before shaking Pawlenty's hand at the end of Wednesday's event, Clear Lake Republican Jane Walls said Pawlenty's background impressed her.
"I like him a lot. A lot of them talk a lot, but he's actually done it," she said.
Walls' husband, Richard, told Pawlenty he would like to see an all-Minnesota GOP ticket with Bachmann as his running mate.
"She's got a lot of skill," Pawlenty replied.
Later Wednesday, Pawlenty responded to a comment made by one his senior campaign advisers, Vin Weber, who said during an interview with congressional newspaper The Hill that Bachmann's recent rise in popularity was in part due to her "sex appeal."
Pawlenty said the comment by Weber, a former Minnesota congressman, was inappropriate. Weber has apologized.
"He shouldn't have used that reference," Pawlenty said. "And it's not an appropriate criteria for evaluating a candidate."
While Pawlenty began his exploration of the nomination in late 2009, Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman from Minnesota, has comparatively burst onto the 2012 scene. A frequent guest of cable news programs, Bachmann has sparked enthusiasm among social conservatives and tea party activists with her role this year leading calls to repeal the health care bill that Obama signed last year and establishment of the tea party caucus in the House.
Pawlenty told reporters in Clear Lake that his comments about candidates light on experience were not aimed at any single candidate in the 2012 field.
"I was just trying to make the general point that Iowa plays such a prominent role in the selection process so early that they can make or break campaigns," Pawlenty said when asked whether his comments were aimed at Bachmann. "I think Iowa has done a remarkable job maintaining and preserving its first-in-the-nation-caucus status. But we want to make sure it's not just first but that it's also right."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)