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Pawlenty heads into second campaign

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Greeting supporters
Gov. Tim Pawlenty greeted supporters after making his re-election announcement Wednesday.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Perhaps Tim Pawlenty's biggest asset as a candidate is that people generally like him. Even his harshest critics admit Pawlenty is a personable guy with a quick wit that's usually on display when he's talking to Minnesotans.

As he stocked up for the governor's fishing opener at Joe's Sporting Goods last month, Pawlenty joked with fishing pro Roger Rucci.

Going fishing
Gov. Tim Pawlenty picks out some lures for use at the Governor's Fishing Opener in May. One of Pawlenty's strong points is his likeable personality.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Do you think it'll help if I sprayed myself down with fish scent?" Pawlenty asked, to which Rucci responded with a laugh, "It certainly couldn't hurt!"

Longtime Pawlenty advisor Charlie Weaver says from the fishing opener to the governor's glee for hockey, Pawlenty comes off as a regular guy.

"He's killer smart, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve, and he doesn't have to prove he's smarter than the next guy. He's very self-effacing," says Weaver.

Weaver served as Pawlenty's first chief of staff, and says he's watched Pawlenty mature as a leader during his first term. He says Pawlenty has learned to stop making quips like "profoundly stupid," and to quickly abandon losing issues such as a state-run casino.

Pawlenty signs stadium bill
Carl Pohlad, the owner of the Minnesota Twins, looks on as Gov. Tim Pawlenty signs the bill to build a new Twins stadium.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Pawlenty also found out the hard way that getting nearly everything he wanted during his first session as governor wasn't necessarily a good thing. Democrats were so angry that they tried to block all of his initiatives the next couple of years.

On the last night of the 2006 session, Pawlenty reflected on lessons learned.

"When you have an almost statistically divided Legislature, nobody's going to get everything that they want," said Pawlenty. "So we have to find ways for each side to get a victory, or at least a partial victory, so they can go home with their head up and say it was productive."

The governor says he also realized that if something was perceived as a Pawlenty initiative, it triggered a partisan backlash, so he stepped back on certain issues.

One of the legislative leaders who has spent many hours behind closed doors with Pawlenty is Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

If he was not so beholden to the extreme right, he would be the best governor probably the state has ever had.

"If he was not so beholden to the extreme right, he would be the best governor probably the state has ever had," says Johnson.

Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says Pawlenty can't ignore the conservative social issues that his base insists on, such as abortion and gay marriage. Johnson also says Pawlenty's no-new-taxes pledge restricted the governor's ability to manage a $30 billion state budget.

Pawlenty erased a $4.5 billion deficit without raising state taxes. But Johnson says that gives a misleading impression of the financial picture for Minnesotans.

"The problem and the downside is the shifting that is caused by ways of the fees and the tuition assistance, and what I'm seeing now is the property tax issue," says Johnson. "It is a shift. You aggregate all of these things, and it's money from the public."

Johnson says during budget talks, it was clear that the governor couldn't negotiate on certain issues because he was boxed in by the pledge.

Pawlenty says the pledge reflects his genuine opposition to state tax increases. He says he won't sign any pledges this campaign, although he says his stance on taxes hasn't changed.

Pawlenty and kids
A group of students visiting the Capitol Friday had a little fun while posing for a picture with Gov. Pawlenty.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Democrats will try to paint Pawlenty as mean-spirited for cutting state health care programs, college funding and local government aid. A labor-backed group called the Alliance for a Better Minnesota has already started running television ads attacking Pawlenty.

"Thirty-eight thousand more Minnesotans have lost their health care because of Tim Pawlenty's budget cuts. What do you think? Is Tim Pawlenty taking Minnesota in the wrong direction?" says the ad.

Pawlenty says Minnesota continues to lead the nation in the number of people with health insurance, and on many other quality of life measures. He says regardless of the attacks from the left, he thinks Minnesotans will side with him on the issues.

"If you're for capping property taxes and taxes overall, if you're for cracking down on illegal immigration, if you're for true education reform ... then the choice is going to be clear this fall," says Pawlenty.

Pawlenty will try to persuade voters that in a year many political observers predict will be a tough fight for GOP incumbents, they should re-elect a conservative Republican governor.

The three Democrats and two Independence Party candidates hoping to oppose him say Pawlenty may be likeable, but his policies aren't.