Pawlenty Previews Pro-McCain Pitch

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty doesn't want you to think that his wife calls him by the pet name "Forty-Five," as in 45th president of the United States.

"She never did. Now that was a joke," Pawlenty told ABC News, referring to comments made in April by the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Ken Mehlman said that in an introduction as a joke. She never said that. It got translated by bloggers into something that had actually been said."

Minnesota's Republican governor has catapulted to the top of Sen. John McCain's V.P. list through humble roots, not vaulting ambition. And the son of a truck driver doesn't want that to change.

His claim to fame in national political circles is his assertion that Republicans should be the party of "Sam's Club and not just the country club."

In an Aug. 6 speech to the National Press Club, the Minnesota governor will elaborate on the "Sam's Club" theme and discuss how the GOP can reach working class voters, including the women McCain's pollster has dubbed "Wal-Mart moms."

During a recent swing through Washington, D.C., Pawlenty, 47, spoke with ABC News about what McCain needs to do to reach working class voters who are worried about the country's direction.

"It really is a reworking of the Reagan Democrats," said Pawlenty. "I always bring it back to my family."

"One of my brothers, for much of his career, was a refinery worker and he works as a municipal worker, and my other brother worked for 40 years in a grocery store, and they're both union members," Pawlenty continued. "My sister is a one-on-one aid for public schools, and my other sister has been a secretary for 40 years, and so I used to ask them when we were younger, you know, 'How do you feel about politics?'

"And they'd say things like, 'Well, I really don't want my taxes raised. I don't necessarily buy into the whole kind of more liberal approach to social issues. I don't want the government taking over the whole health care system.' In the case of my brothers, they like to hunt and fish, they don't want anybody messing with their guns; and they'd say, 'I'm voting Democrat.'"

"Well how come?" Pawlenty would ask them. "Because the Republicans aren't for the working person," his siblings would reply.

Pawlenty, who just completed a stint as chairman of the National Governors Association, suggested in his interview that Republicans are handicapped in appealing to the working class because the GOP is competing against a Democratic Party that tells voters, "We've got some free stuff for ya."

"That's a simple, initially seductive, politically seductive sales pitch," said Pawlenty. "And of course, it isn't free, and we know in the long run that a lot of that stuff doesn't work and can actually be counterproductive."

"But all that being said," he added, "we gotta come in as Republicans and say, 'Here are the things that we can do from a Republican perspective and translate it into progress in your lives,' and I don't think we've done a great job of that."

So how does Pawlenty propose reaching the "Sam's Club" set?

He says the GOP needs to do three things: First, Republicans must address voters' concerns on issues like the war and the economy. Second, if the GOP is going to say that government is not the complete solution, then Republicans need to show that their market-oriented ideas work. Last, the GOP needs to be better at "getting ahead of emerging issues."

"Health care and energy would be examples of where the Republican Party could have been more aggressive and more prospective over the last 10 or 15 years," said Pawlenty.

While chiding the national GOP's failure to take the long view, Pawlenty was quick to argue that those shortcomings do not apply to McCain.

"He's been a forward-looking, change-oriented, reform-minded Republican who doesn't neatly fit the stereotype of the mold, and I think people find that very attractive," said Pawlenty.

The Minnesota governor sees proof for his claim about McCain's appeal in public polling.

"When you look at the generic ballot of who you want for president, a Democrat or Republican, and you see that the Republicans have a huge deficit, but when you insert John McCain's name, it essentially pulls to even or better against the leading Democratic candidates," said Pawlenty. "And that just shows you that he has a different brand than the generic Republican."

Pawlenty's original "Sam's Club" speech, which he made while running for governor in 2002, spawned a 2005 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times followed by a longer magazine piece later that same year in The Weekly Standard.

The authors of the 2005 stories, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam of The Atlantic magazine, have just published a new book on Sam's Club Republicans, "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win The Working Class and Save The American Dream."

Douthat and Salam think Pawlenty's blue-collar background makes him the "future face of the Republican Party."

"I think that it would be a shrewd choice" for McCain to pick Pawlenty, Salam told ABC News. "He is the governor of a Midwestern state with some experience and who has been politically successful in a very hostile environment."

On the policy front, the authors see Pawlenty breaking from conservative orthodoxy on the environment. But they have not yet seen him flesh out a broader agenda for alleviating the burdens facing working-class families.

"Though he is someone who certainly pays attention to the Republican coalition," Salam continues, "I don't think that he has been able to accomplish as much as he would have liked or we would have liked."