One year ago today, Tim Pawlenty launched the first Iowa television ads of the 2012 campaign, signaling a media blitz before the crucial Iowa straw poll last August. That straw poll ended disastrously for Pawlenty, a third-place finish that led to his abrupt withdrawal from the Republican primary.
But today Pawlenty is back at the forefront of the political world, considered a likely front-runner on presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's list for a possible running mate. The former Minnesota governor is now at the top of the short-list, Politico reported Wednesday.
It is not hard to see why. In recent months, Pawlenty has emerged as a loyal surrogate for Romney, who helped pay off Pawlenty's campaign debt last year. No sooner had Pawlenty left the presidential race, his campaign war chest empty, then he endorsed Romney. He hit the campaign trail, stumping for Romney at numerous events. Despite his struggles as a candidate in his own right, Pawlenty excelled as a surrogate. A former aide to Pawlenty's campaign said his success as a surrogate stemmed from his genuine belief in Romney – and has no connection to the vice presidential speculation.
"It's almost as if the pressure was off. His personality emerged more boldly when it was about Mitt Romney. I think that's a strength, not a weakness," the former aide said. "It's someone who has coalesced behind Gov. Romney at an early stage and put all his strengths behind him. That's where that authenticity comes from."
"He's a really good fit. He's low-maintenance, and he's a team player. You know, he believes in Gov. Romney and believes in what he's trying to do. Since he endorsed him, he's been that type of surrogate. He's not doing that for any quid pro quo. He's doing that because he backs Romney. And he'd be doing this regardless."
In addition to Pawlenty's loyal work as a surrogate, he has other characteristics that may appeal to the Romney campaign as it tries to figure out who to add to the GOP ticket.
"He's got the benefit of having been a conservative governor in a blue state and moving it red, plus the benefit of coming from outside of Washington, so there's a lot that he brings to the table," the former aide said.
Pawlenty served two terms as a governor of Minnesota, at one point overseeing a 10-day shutdown of the state government because of a disagreement over taxes and spending, a fight that is raging now in the nation's capital. The son of a truck driver from St. Paul, he comes from a blue-collar family and displays a workingman mentality, two qualities that could complement Romney well on the Republican ticket. He enjoys popularity among evangelicals, a group that may have reservations about Romney's Mormon faith. And he might help Romney in key Midwestern battleground states, such as Minnesota and Iowa.
Another element in Pawlenty's favor: He has no skeletons in the closet. Pawlenty was vetted in 2008 by Sen. John McCain's campaign, which rated him as one of the top candidates for the spot that ultimately went to Sarah Palin. The advantages to picking Pawlenty do not end there. He and his wife, Mary, also enjoy a close relationship with Romney and his wife Ann.
Another former Pawlenty aide said the friendship dates back longer than just this past year.
"They were always friendly during the campaign, but plus they served as governors during the same time. Gov. Romney was head of the Republican Governors' Association when Pawlenty was running for re-election in 2006. Gov. Pawlenty, in a tough year for Republicans, was one of the few real success stories, and Gov. Romney deserved a lot of credit for that as head of the RGA. They ended up working a bit together in that capacity," the aide said. "Then on the campaign trail in the primary they bumped into each other a couple of times and were always friendly. Then after Gov. Pawlenty dropped out he and Mary went to spend a weekend with the Romneys, and I think that's where they got to know each other really personally. Since then on the campaign trail, they've campaigned together a bunch of times."
"He was one of the first people to endorse Gov. Romney, and he did it because he thought Gov. Romney was the best candidate in the field by far and felt very strongly that he could be the best president," the aide continued. "Now he's really gotten to know Gov. Romney and Ann, and he has really enjoyed campaigning for them and is committed to seeing him elected. He's been a loyal and effective surrogate. Whether that translates into a close look for vice president is anyone's guess, but I think it was the last thing on the governor's mind when he endorsed him.
"I don't think he was ever expecting to be talked about in this way. He joined various corporate boards and is doing a lot of interesting international things, in addition to spending as much time as possible helping Gov. Romney. Plus he's got his daughters and his family life. So those are his focuses and he's really not paying attention to the vice presidential stuff."
Publicly Pawlenty, who is a national Romney campaign co-chair, has expressed a reluctance to talk about the veepstakes and has stated that he can "best serve Mitt in other ways." In Minneapolis last month, he went so far as to encourage people to "remove my name from the list." However, weeks later, he said that "anybody would be honored to serve if asked."
Brian McClung, a spokesman for Pawlenty, said the former governor is not agreeing to interviews for stories on the vice presidential selection "because he wants to keep the focus on the issues and Gov. Romney.
"Gov. Pawlenty believes Gov. Romney will be a great president and he's happy to serve as an active volunteer," McClung said. "Gov. Pawlenty believes he can be helpful in other ways and has encouraged the consideration of other running mate prospects. He is enjoying his time in the private sector."
In the meantime, Pawlenty continues to work as a loyal surrogate. In an appearance last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Pawlenty ripped President Obama's record during his tenure in the Oval Office.
"It really looks to me like a shrinking presidency," he said, arguing that "the president is out of ideas, and he's out of time and now he should be out of office."
"The president's message of 'it could be worse and it's somebody else's fault' four years into his presidency – that's not a basis to re-elect somebody," he said. "We don't give out participation ribbons for being president of the United States. You actually have to do something."
For his part, Romney clearly holds Pawlenty in high regard. At an event in Las Vegas last October, Romney acknowledged that he had expected Pawlenty to be his "toughest competition" in the GOP primary. While Pawlenty's campaign never lived up to those expectations, and was crushed after coming in behind both Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul in the straw poll, former Pawlenty aides do not blame the defeat on the candidate himself.
"The campaign made a lot of strategic mistakes, and I don't think anybody thought he lost because he underperformed as a candidate," one aide said. "Some people may have expected more, but at the end of the day he lost because he ran out of money, not because people didn't like him or his message. We went all in on the straw poll, which was an organizing contest and we got out-organized by some other candidates who peaked at the exact right moment. He's very comfortable in his own shoes and speaking from his heart, and I think having a lot of organization and advisers around him telling him what to say wasn't always constructive. Now he's very much his own man and just helping Mitt without any agenda other than to help him get elected president. He's having fun, and it shows."
If Pawlenty has a drawback, it may be the oft-cited criticism that he is too bland, that while he appears to be a safe choice, he is not an exciting one. That sounds a lot like Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana who was reportedly on Obama's short-list in 2008, but was ultimately passed over for Sen. Joe Biden. After witnessing what happened to the McCain-Palin ticket that fall, Romney may not want an exciting running mate.
Instead, just how Obama opted for a former rival in Biden, Romney may take the same approach and pick Pawlenty. It is an option that appears more and more plausible by the day.