By Bob von Sternberg
Folks, we here in Minnesota got to watch this movie four years ago, and the final reel turned out to be pretty much the same as last time around.
Once again, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood on the brink of being named the Republicans' vice presidential candidate, having weathered vetting and a frenzy of media speculation about his chances. But just as Sen. John McCain passed Pawlenty over to make the utterly unexpected pick of Sarah Palin, who was then the governor of Alaska, Mitt Romney's campaign has left Pawlenty waiting once again at the altar.
Forever the bridesmaid, or, apologies to the late Gore Vidal, TPaw's perpetually the best man -- never the groom. And now, a guy from Janesville who resembles Eddie Munster has supplanted him.
Ever the good GOP soldier, Pawlenty continued to stump on Romney's behalf in New Hampshire on Saturday, even as Rep. Paul Ryan was ushered onto the stage as the Republican running mate.
For weeks, Pawlenty bobbed along in the froth of pundits' chatter, appearing to be at or near the top of the short list of Romney's choices. He seemed to have much of what Romney needed in a running mate.
A blue-collar Republican with a solid set of conservative bona fides, he was widely considered to be "safe" (or "vanilla") in the descriptions of the Beltway wise guys.
But much like McCain rolled the dice with the pick of Palin, Romney decided to forego safe and pick (another) young, charismatic Republican rising star who could cement his sometimes shaky relationship with the party's conservative base.
Pawlenty's name began rising to near the top of Romney's short list as more diverse candidates, such as Florida Gov. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seemed to fade in the presidential race's betting pool. Ryan was in the mix but was considered less of a sure thing than Pawlenty or Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (another safe pick).
Pawlenty spent the summer executing a political dance of the veil, regularly popping up on cable talk shows, joking with Fox News's Neil Cavuto when he tried to deflect a question about his widely perceived dullness. Politico reported the exchange:
"You have been whittled down to what I'm told is a shorter list, apparently because you're considered, at least by the Romneys, we are told, sir, this could be wrong -- safe, reliable, steady as she goes, nothing too flashy. Dare I say dull," Cavuto said.
"If you goad me into it, I'll show you my tats," Pawlenty said, adding, "I'm teasing, I'm teasing."
But as unconventional characters seemed to lose traction among the punditry, the buzz grew that Romney's crew began focusing more on Pawlenty and Portman. Both were seen as attractive candidates from swing states who could boost the Republican ticket. One thing hurting Pawlenty is the fact that no GOP ticket has won Minnesota since 1972, while Ohio, far larger and a bellwether of presidential politics is more crucial to a win in November.
It's becoming clear, though, that Wisconsin may be an even more crucial swing state, a formerly safely blue state that has become a tossup as Republicans have become ascendant. Hence, Paul Ryan.
Pawlenty has been willing to be an attack dog for Romney since his own presidential campaign crashed and burned in Iowa last summer. That's usually the primary job of a vice presidential candidate. He's been tested, however briefly, in the crucible of a presidential campaign. He has a brown-shoe, modest, affable manner that contrasts well with Romney, stuck with the image of an elitist rich guy. His personal history as a poor kid in South St. Paul, the son of a truck driver who was the first in his family to attend college couldn't be more different from Romney's biography.
But he always had liabilities of his own in the race for the vice presidential nod. In two terms as governor, he never won a majority of Minnesotans' votes. His conservatism has been questioned as a come-lately move from his earlier moderate positions in the state Legislature (a quote that has haunted him was saying at one point that "the era of small government is over.") He also once said that the Republican Party "can't be the party of middle-aged white-guy CEOs." (Not coincidentally, a major power base of the party.) And few people are speculating that the Romney campaign can win Minnesota, no matter how tight the race with President Barack Obama appears now.
This time around, Pawlenty was somewhat more discreet than in 2008, when he gave the impression, correctly or not, as hungering for the job. And last spring, he infamously tarred the federal health care law as "Obamneycare," only to track back from the charge, causing many analysts to question his toughness on the campaign trail.
But as Pawlenty's profile rose all summer, he showed that he could stick a shiv into the president, saying Obama has been "hanging shiny objects in front of the public and the press."
Now that he has once again been passed over, Pawlenty's future in Minnesota's politics remains something of an enigma. He hasn't talked about his plans, even while he has strengthened his ties to the Republican base by hitting the circuit on the conservative speech treadmill.
He almost certainly is assured of having a strong voice in the party's hierarchy. But had he been anointed by Romney, he could have attained the clout and stature in Minnesota unseen since the days of Humphrey and Mondale.
Bob von Sternberg was a reporter at the Star Tribune for 27 years, covering politics and several other topics. He lives in Minneapolis.