ABC News' Matthew Jaffe (@JaffeMatt) reports from Des Moines: Eight months before the Iowa caucuses, Tim Pawlenty formally kicked off his campaign for president today in Des Moines, denouncing President Obama's policies, touting his record as governor of Minnesota, and promising to tell Americans the "hard truths" even if it hurts.
"Fluffy promises of hope and change don't buy our groceries, make our mortgage payments, or pay for our children's clothes," Pawlenty told the crowd at the State Historical Building here. "So in my campaign I'm going to take a different approach. I am going to tell you the truth. The truth is, Washington is broken."
"We've tried Barack Obama's way and his way has failed," he said. "Three years into his term, we're no longer just running out of money. We're running out of time."
One of the "hard truths" that Pawlenty told this Iowa audience was that it is time to start phasing out ethanol subsidies, something that will be a tough sell in the Hawkeye state, to say the least.
"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."
Pawlenty's whirlwind week-long roll-out tour will take him to Florida and New York in the coming days. But the state he talked about the most today was his home of Minnesota, from his upbringing there – when he lost his mom as a teenager and later became the first in his family to graduate from college – to his tenure as governor.
"I know the American dream because I've lived it," he said. "I am running for President to keep that dream alive."
"If we could move Minnesota in a common sense, conservative direction, we can do it anywhere, even in Washington, D.C," he vowed.
After an introduction by his wife Mary, Pawlenty spoke for about 20 minutes, a speech kicked off by his proclamation, "I'm Tim Pawlenty and I'm running for president." Of course, the statement might have carried more weight had he not said the same thing in a video message released last night. Following his speech, Pawlenty spent around 25 minutes answering half a dozen questions from a friendly audience. The questions – mostly softballs – gave Pawlenty the chance to delve into issues ranging from the Supreme Court to immigration, from health care to education, from deficit reduction to the president's controversial comments on Israel's borders last week.
"That sends off all kinds of messages, not only to the enemies of Israel in the Middle East and more broadly in the world, but it also sends a message that there's a crevice or a break between the United States and Israel. That's dangerous for them. It's dangerous for our national security interest. It's dangerous for America," Pawlenty railed. "And it's misguided at a level that's almost unimaginable."
The question-and-answer session today also offered Pawlenty the opportunity to show some personality, something that his critics say is in short supply. Speaking on a rooftop terrace on an 80-degree day here, Pawlenty at one point quipped to a questioner, "You should use some SPF by the way." But the audience only reacted with half-hearted laughs.
In the days leading up to his long-expected announcement, Pawlenty had been bolstered by Mike Huckabee – who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 – and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels both deciding not to run. However, even Pawlenty's roll-out was partially overshadowed by who's not in the GOP race, rather than who is. The front page of today's Des Moines Register focused on the impact of Daniels' announcement late Saturday that he was not going to run. While noting that Daniels' absence could help Pawlenty, the paper pointed out that Daniels' "decision not to run disappoints conservatives with fiscal focus." The story on Pawlenty's roll-out was relegated to page A4.
For USA Today, meanwhile, Pawlenty took matters into his own hands, penning an op-ed entitled, "Real Change Is About Telling Hard Truths." Read it here.
"Anyone who can't tell hard truths now won't be able to lead our country in the future," he wrote.
That is a message that Pawlenty is expected to hammer home over the next eight months as he makes a fierce bid to win Iowa. If he is to emerge as his party's top alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney, then the former Minnesota governor – a man with strong ties to social conservatives – must get a good result here. If not, if he fails to make a strong showing in the nation's first caucuses, then it will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for him to rebound in New Hampshire. And that is why today, on a sun-splashed rooftop terrace with the golden dome of the state capitol glistening behind him, long before the temperature turns cold and the race heats up, Pawlenty made his case to Iowa's voters.
"We are going to win it and it's going to start right here in Iowa," he said to cheers from the crowd.
When it was over, for the most part, Pawlenty received good reviews for the roll-out."I think he's a man of fair ideas and it sounds like he's got a good personality," said Mark Erickson of Des Moines. Another of the town's residents, Dick Doak, said, "I liked what I heard." And Jane Gerber, passing through town from New York, stated, "I find him extremely impressive, very down to earth."
But it's still early days. That's why Larry Shaw of Des Moines took more of a wait-and-see approach.
"We need to find somebody who's willing to stand up with some backbone and say this is what we believe and this is what we're gonna do," he said.
Is that candidate Pawlenty? Time will tell, but for now, he's off and running. And that's more than can be said for others.