I was having lunch Friday with a few conservative activists when the conversation turned to 2012, and who has the best chance to beat President Obama.
The answer is: the person who can keep such conversations from going the way ours went.
That’s because our conversation Friday, like every other one I’ve had on the topic of Republican candidates for 2012, focused almost exclusively on candidates’ weakness — from Mitt’s RomneyCare to Sarah Palin’s tendency toward polarization to Mitch Daniels’ “truce” on social issues to Newt Gingrich’s baggage to Haley Barbour’s accent to Bobby Jindal’s inexperience. It’s the kind of conversation that would brighten the day of any Obamaphile.
The name to which we didn’t attach any negatives — nor, I should say, any particular positives — was Tim Pawlenty.
That strikes me as interesting, because evidently a lot of other people have similar thoughts about the former Minnesota governor.
On NPR Friday, David Brooks of the New York Times said it’s probably down to Romney and Pawlenty. In his Sunday column, George Will put Pawlenty on a slightly longer list of “plausible Republican presidents on the horizon,” along with Romeny, Daniels, Barbour and former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman [edited at 12:00 p.m. -- I decided to save the "more on Huntsman" for another post -- KW]. At National Review Online, Ramesh Ponnuru says that, relative to the other Republicans in the field, Pawlenty is “either more conservative, more electable, or both.”
I’ve met Pawlenty once, in Atlanta late last year at a conference about regulation and entrepreneurship. He gave an adequate, not dazzling, speech, though admittedly the crowd was pretty small. One observer who had seen Pawlenty speak before said the talk was a marked improvement over past outings.
As Ponnuru notes about Pawlenty’s book, “Courage to Stand” (which I’ve not yet read), the Midwesterner quite obviously wants to emphasize his blue-collar roots; he’s generally credited with coining the term “Sam’s Club Republican.” Ponnuru outlines five reasons Pawlenty could beat Romney head-to-head:
First, Pawlenty was elected as a conservative whereas Romney ran as a moderate. Second, Pawlenty pursued a more confrontational strategy: He didn’t cut any grand bipartisan deal, as Romney did with Ted Kennedy on health care. Third, and as a result, Pawlenty’s record does not include anything as likely to offend conservative voters as Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law, which made the purchase of health insurance compulsory.
Fourth, Pawlenty won reelection in his blue state, even in 2006, which was a slaughterhouse of a year for Republicans. Romney, by contrast, left the governorship after one term: He was unable to position himself as a conservative for a presidential run while staying popular in his home state. Fifth, Pawlenty has an ability to connect to blue-collar voters that Romney has never demonstrated.
All of which is to say, Pawlenty bears further watching as a real possibility in 2012.
– By Kyle Wingfield