After convention, Pawlenty's future unclear

Pawlenty on the radio
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was a guest on MPR Thursday morning during a broadcast from the Xcel Energy Center, site of the Republican National Convention.
MPR Photo/Larissa Anderson

Pawlenty has two years left on his second term, and probably will face a monster budget deficit next year. The November election could cause him major heartburn if Democrats pick up a handful of seats for a veto-proof majority in both chambers.

Pawlenty won't say whether he'll try for a third term, a rarity in Minnesota. Many, including several candidates lining up to seek the office, don't think he will.

Some well-known Republicans say Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's early association with John McCain has lifted Pawlenty's profile to the top of GOP politics.

Most agree Pawlenty has a bright future in national politics, and some say he could end up the GOP nominee for president.

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McCain and Pawlenty
John McCain and Tim Pawlenty speak to attendees at a town hall meeting in St. Paul in June. Pawlenty's near constant campaigning for McCain recently led to speculation that he would be McCain's running mate.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Early this afternoon, Pawlenty found himself in what's become a familiar predicament. He was rushing from one national interview to another.

"I don't think anything's really changed," said Pawlenty. "I'm just acting as a surrogate for Sen., McCain, so I get called upon to provide some remarks on his behalf as a surrogate speaker or in interviews."

But in reality, a lot has changed for Minnesota's governor. He's now a top Republican contender for president, according to Grover Norquist, the head of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform.

"In anyone's list of who could be the next Republican president, just as in anyone's list of who would be the Republican vice presidential nominee, Pawlenty's high up on the list," said Norquist. "You're in rarified atmosphere. There aren't many people in that zone, and Pawlenty's one of them."

Norquist says before McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, most top Republicans were expecting him to choose Pawlenty as his running mate. He says even though Pawlenty wasn't the pick, it has not dimmed his prospects.

"I'm the same person, live in the same house, have the same family, have the same dog."

Norquist says Palwenty is like an actor who is nominated for an Academy Award -- even if you don't win the big prize, your stock still increases.

Norquist says not only do Republicans like Pawlenty for his positions on budget and tax issues, he says Palwenty stands out as a reformer for getting behind McCain early.

"He's free to do anything he wants to do with his life, as we all are, but I would not be surprised to see him as the Republican nominee in four or eight years," said Norquist.

Pawlenty will have a chance to further bolster his standing with party activists tonight when he addresses the convention prior to McCain's acceptance speech.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a 2008 GOP presidential contender himself, will speak after Palwenty.

Brownback, too, thinks Pawlenty's options are wide open. Brownback says Palwenty's current job affords him an excellent platform from which he can build his growing reputation.

"Being a governor is a great position in American politics, because that's typically where we start new ideas and see them implemented," said Brownback. "Not on the federal level, because a lot of times that's too hard. But if you can see it and see it work at the state level, then it moves on forward."

Many say Palwenty would also be welcome to join the McCain administration.

Despite all of the buzz around Pawlenty, a new National Journal poll of Republican insiders ranks former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the most likely front runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, if John McCain loses in November.

Romney garnered more than 50 percent of the vote -- more than all of the other possible contenders combined. Gov. Palwenty did not even make the top five in the National Journal poll.

As he made his way to talk to USA Today editors and reporters, Pawlenty downplayed any national aspirations.

"Nothing has really changed for me, other than I'm a volunteer for Sen. McCain. I'm the same person, live in the same house, have the same family, have the same dog," said Pawlenty. "I am grateful and honored to be governor of the State of Minnesota. I love that job. I am going to continue to work as governor of that state, and as to what happens down the road, I haven't given that any thought."

Palwenty is expected to continue campaigning for McCain. He says he'll also be preparing for the upcoming legislative session. In January he has to present a new two-year budget to the Legislature.