Pawlenty Takes On “Hard Truth” Of Ethanol, But Will It Hurt Him In Iowa?

May 23, 2011 6:47pm

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe (@jaffematt) and Amy Walter (@amyewalter) report:  In his young campaign Tim Pawlenty has already staked out a clear plan to, as he puts it, tell "the hard truths," even if voters don't want to hear them.

Exhibit A: Pawlenty told a Des Moines, Iowa audience today that it is time to start phasing out ethanol subsidies, historically a sacred cow in the Hawkeye state.

"We need to phase out subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol," he said. "We simply can't afford them anymore. Some people will be upset by what I'm saying. Conventional wisdom says you can't talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street. But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead – I will." 

At a time when many Republican voters have voiced indifference or outright frustration about the current field of presidential candidates, Pawlenty is hoping that his focus on truth telling and "authenticity" will set him apart. It's also a not so subtle swipe at Gov. Mitt Romney who has battled the perception that his positions on key issues change with the political winds. With his blue collar background and mop of brown hair, Pawlenty is putting his average guy bonafides up as a badge of pride.

But, we also know that while voters like the concept of truth tellers, they don't always love being told the truth. Moreover, once a candidate puts himself out there as a candidate of the "truth" he opens himself up to opportunities for his opponents and the media to scrutinize each and every statement he makes for, as Stephen Colbert would say, "truthiness."

It is clearly a risky move by Pawlenty. Thus far, however, it appears to be paying off.

A Republican operative in Iowa offered only praise for the move.

"It was a really gutsy move and I think it's something that even Iowa Republicans will understand," the operative told ABC News. "Everyone here wants ethanol to stand on its own two feet and it's close. I don't think it's as toxic as two years ago or four years ago. People understand we have a spending problem. I don't think it's going to be the immediate disqualifier that it would have been years ago."
"Yes it's been done before," the source said, "but maybe not to the extent it's been done here. Maybe it's time."

"I think his speech today is going to make Daniels' supporters and others take a second look at him and rightfully so," the source concluded.

Meanwhile, the president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, applauded the move as well.

"The ethanol industry is united behind Senator Chuck Grassley’s legislation to phase down and reform the current ethanol incentive as part of the discussion on all energy programs. We appreciate Sen. Grassley’s leadership on this issue. Governor Pawlenty’s remarks today appear to be in line with Sen. Grassley’s approach for ethanol reform. We welcome his support," IRFA President Walt Wendland said in a statement, referencing the state's senior Republican senator. “Gov. Pawlenty further pointed out that energy incentive reforms must be across the board. We agree that the massive amount of federally funded petroleum incentives must be a part of any reform discussion. Iowans look forward to Gov. Pawlenty further detailing his plans to ‘phase out’ petroleum subsidies, perhaps in a speech in Houston, Texas.”

But winning Iowa may be tough for a candidate like Pawlenty who is clearly not bowing at the altar of ethanol, especially at a time of high corn prices. And by telling the truth or not, Iowa is virtually a must-win state for Pawlenty.

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