One year ago this month, Tim Pawlenty stood atop the State Historical Building in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, the golden dome of the capital building gleaming in the background, and launched his campaign for the White House.
“Fluffy promises of hope and change don’t buy our groceries, make our mortgage payments or pay for our children’s clothes,” he said. “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 are going to win it,” he proclaimed, “and it’s going to start right here in Iowa.”
He once was considered a frontrunner to win his party’s nomination for president. Now, the former Minnesota governor still could play a significant role in November’s election as Mitt Romney’s running mate, a possibility that could materialize this summer.
At first glance, a Romney-Pawlenty ticket may seem unlikely. Investors on the online prediction market Intrade currently give Pawlenty only a four percent chance of securing the No. 2 slot.
If Pawlenty were tapped as the running mate, Democrats would have months worth of material of Pawlenty bashing Romney to use against the GOP ticket. Last June, for instance, Pawlenty took to national television to coin the term “ObamneyCare” in an effort to link Romney’s health care plan for Massachusetts to Obama’s controversial nationwide reforms.
“President Obama said that he designed ObamaCare after RomneyCare and basically made it ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty said. “We now have essentially the same features. The president’s own words is that he patterned in large measure ObamaCare after what happened in Massachusetts. What I don’t understand is they both continue to defend it.”
While Pawlenty later endorsed Romney and loyally campaigned for him across the country, the benefits to Romney of picking Pawlenty might prove to be minimal. After all, despite Pawlenty’s endorsement, Romney lost the Minnesota caucuses in February to Rick Santorum – and it wasn’t even close. Even though Pawlenty had stumped for him in the state, Romney could do no better than a third-place finish in the caucuses.
Mark Greenbaum, a freelance political writer in Washington whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon and the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets, puts Pawlenty outside the top 10 in his list of the most likely running mate picks for Romney.
“On paper, Tim Pawlenty has always seemed like presidential material,” Greenbaum said. “He’s the right age, has the requisite number of years in, comes from the perfect part of the country, and speaks with good discipline. But he’s a ‘where’s the beef?’ candidate: there’s just nothing that exciting or distinguishing about him.”
That sounds a lot like Evan Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana who was reportedly on President Obama’s short-list in 2008. Bayh always appeared to be a safe choice, but hardly an inspired one. Ultimately, of course, Obama opted for another senator, Delaware’s Joe Biden.
However, if the worst thing about Pawlenty is that he isn’t the most exciting option, that might not be so bad. Four years ago Sarah Palin was nothing if not an exciting pick for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, but just ask the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, how that turned out.
In addition, the Romney camp clearly has a great deal of respect and admiration for Pawlenty. At an event in Las Vegas last October, Romney admitted that he had once expected Pawlenty to be his “toughest competition.” Meanwhile, behind the scenes last fall, the Romney family was joining forces with officials of Bain Capital to help Pawlenty pay off his remaining campaign debt.
With a resume that features two terms as governor of a blue state, a national profile, and a blue-collar upbringing, Pawlenty could appeal to the Romney campaign. Brian McClung, who was Pawlenty’s spokesman for six years during his time as governor, believes that Pawlenty has a compelling case to make.
“I don’t know if Gov. Pawlenty will be considered, but I can tell you some of his strengths,” McClung said. “He’s a down-to-earth guy who comes from a blue-collar background and has a remarkable way of connecting with people. As a conservative governor in a Democrat-leaning state, he significantly cut government spending, reduced taxes and enacted some of the nation’s strongest education, pension and health care reforms, all before it was the popular thing to do. He’s a smart, strong and tested executive.”
In fact, there are some similarities between Pawlenty and Biden, in terms of what they offer as a running mate. In 2008, Biden was coming off his own failed bid for the nomination, but he proved to be a fierce advocate for Obama on the campaign trail once he was picked as his No. 2.
One Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Pawlenty would be “a solid pick” for Romney.
“Romney could pick Pawlenty for all the same reasons that Obama picked Biden. Pawlenty has serious policy chops and an impressive record in his own right, and has proven to be a better surrogate than presidential candidate,” the strategist said. “If Boston is looking for a loyal friend who can connect with blue collar voters and score policy points against Biden in the debate, Pawlenty would be a solid pick.”
On Wednesday morning, as Obama returned from his whirlwind trip to Afghanistan one year after the death of Osama bin Laden, there was Pawlenty on national television outlining why Obama’s trip was “fully appropriate,” but his approach to the war in Afghanistan was mistaken.
“We aren’t criticizing him for going to Afghanistan to visit the troops,” Pawlenty told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. However, he continued, “Gov. Romney feels it’s important to define the mission ahead in terms of strategic outcomes, not in terms of days or months on the calendar. And those strategic outcomes include making sure al Qaeda is defeated, making sure the insurgencies – including, by the way, groups like the Taliban are incapable, in a way, of re-forming in a way that threatens Afghan security or the situation next door in Pakistan – and making sure that the Afghan security forces and police forces have enough capacity to be able to make sure the country is at least reasonably stable.”
At one point, referring to Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Romney during the contentious GOP primary, Pawlenty said, “There’s a celebrated and time-honored tradition of people who fight hard against each other for a party’s nomination saying some things that are in tension or in conflict with each other, but then becoming colleagues and teammates as you get on to the bigger goal which is defeating the other side, in this case defeating President Obama.”
Pawlenty wasn’t talking about his own relationship with Romney, but he easily could have been. The question now is whether the two of them will become teammates on the GOP ticket this fall.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.