Tim Pawlenty is a dynamic speaker who hits the same themes in every campaign stop. He always begins with the budget, and what he once called the "Incredible Hulk" of budget deficits he faced when he took office.
As he campaigned at several suburban manufacturers, Pawlenty told employees at Valmont Industries that when he became governor, the state's economy was a mess.
"We were hemorrhaging red ink, we had one of the highest taxed states in the nation, our economy was in the tank," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty, 45, tells workers he erased a $4.5 billion deficit without raising state taxes, and now the state has a surplus.
"So things are really firing on all cylinders in Minnesota economically, our schools are doing really well, with some of the best performance in the country, we have one of the best health care systems in the country," said Pawlenty.
Pawlenty's upbeat assessment of the state resonates with voters like Todd Goembel of Burnsville, an accountant who works for another manufacturer, Despatch Industries.
"It's nice to see there's someone working out there for us, and for the smaller business, and the ordinary Joe employee every day and what not," Goembel said. "And the fact that he has a great idea about keeping property taxes low and stuff like that."
But while Pawlenty is popular in the business community for his handling of the budget, his critics say his no-new-taxes stance hurt some of the state's most vulnerable residents.
One legislator who knows Pawlenty well from their days sparring on the House floor is Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. Rukavina said he considered Pawlenty a friend when the governor served in the House. Both of them come from a blue-collar background, but Rukavina said Pawlenty changed when he became governor. Rukavina had a harsh description of Pawlenty during a candidate forum on the Iron Range.
"This guy is a faker," Rukavina said. "And he comes off as such a nice person; he isn't. He's turned into a very mean-spirited person."
Rukavina said Pawlenty's budget cuts hurt the poorest of the poor, college students and seniors in nursing homes. Pawlenty said he made some difficult decisions to balance the budget. He acknowledges he made some mistakes during his first term, and he said he's learned to compromise with Democrats and find common ground on issues like education and health care. And a politician who used to make quips like "profoundly stupid" said he's learned to take a more statesmanlike tone.
"You have to learn as governor that you just have to take these punches, because they come every day and they come hard, and you can't respond to every one, and people want to see you rise above it so that's what I've tried to do," Pawlenty said. "And with that I think you get some wisdom and you get some maturity, and I think I could be an even better governor in a second term as a result."
But there's still some of the partisan fighter in Pawlenty.
"I can tell you what your worst nightmare is," Pawlenty told Republican activists at the party's state convention in June. "It's one of the big-spending, tax-raising, abortion-promoting, gay marriage-embracing, more-welfare-without-accountability-loving, school-reform-resisting, illegal-immigration-supporting Democrats for governor who think Hillary Clinton should be president of the United States."
When Pawlenty first ran for governor, he was an energetic candidate who stressed his working-class roots. Pawlenty grew up in South St. Paul, the youngest son of a truck driver, and the first person in his family to go to college. He got a law degree from the University of Minnesota, and served in the Legislature for ten years, including four as House Majority Leader.
As he campaigns for a second term as governor, Pawlenty said he has to overcome what he describes as a built-in advantage for Democrats in the state.
"So you've got to make up five or six points just to get to even, and then you gotta add something on that to win," Pawlenty said. "And then of course, with all the challenges and frustrations aimed at Washington, people are concerned about that. Our hope is that they see the positive news in Minnesota."
Pawlenty's opponents, Mike Hatch and Peter Hutchinson, whom he's dubbed Mr. Doom and Mr. Gloom, will continue to point out the less positive news -- rising property taxes, college tuition and health care costs.
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