The Tim Pawlenty story: Next stop, the White House?

At a Monitor breakfast with reporters, the Republican governor from Minnesota points proudly to his roots from working-class St. Paul. As a potential presidential candidate, he breaks the GOP stereotype. Biography matters in politics. But America's in a crunch, and solutions matter more.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor/File
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota, at a Monitor breakfast with reporters.

Republican Tim Pawlenty, two-term governor of Minnesota, has checked all the right boxes for a 2012 bid for the presidency. That includes today's appearance as a guest at a Monitor breakfast, where he clinked coffee cups with about 40 journalists who cover national politics. This just after a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Aside from a short time on the short list of John McCain running mates in 2008, Governor Pawlenty is relatively unknown outside the upper Midwest. He's working on changing that though, speaking to conservatives around the country as vice chair of the Republican Governors Association and starting a political action committee. At the breakfast he said he would decide in early 2011 whether to run, and added that his decision will not depend on what Sarah Palin or anyone else does or does not do.

When the candidate pack officially forms, Pawlenty could well break out ahead. That may be partly because of his biography. He pointedly said he did not fit the CEO-country-club stereotype (a veiled contrast with Mitt Romney). Pawlenty played up his roots in the working-class neighborhood of St. Paul, known for meatpacking. His mother died when he was a teenager and his father was a truck driver. Of the five Pawlenty children, he was the only one to go to college.

When voters say, " 'Well, you don't understand me, you're all a bunch of well, you know, country-club elitists,' it helps to have a messenger who has at least walked in their shoes," Pawlenty said. He said six or eight Republicans are changing the face of the party, such as Indian-American Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Latina Susanna Martinez in New Mexico.

The task of the next GOP presidential candidate is to win over those swing voters who backed Barack Obama last time. According to Pawlenty, those voters are "probably not folks sitting around trying to look at the details of a seven- or eight-point healthcare reform plan, but they do look at you and say, 'Does this person have the heart and guts to understand my plight?' "

I get a little worried when candidates assume voters don't want to know details about issues. True, biography does matter. President Obama's biography was central to his message of hope and change. But now that we have healthcare reform and financial reform, we see how important the details are. In these precarious times, details and solutions should matter more than biography, more than heart and guts.

Fortunately, Pawlenty also had much to say about the details of policy. Indeed, he was so articulate, so polished in his appearance (you never would have known he had jet lag), so non-Minnesotan in his speech (I never did hear an "eh"), that he almost came off as a Washington pol.

On Afghanistan, he supports the surge while arguing that the July 2011 withdrawal deadline has a corrosive effect on security on the ground.

On the debt, he's ready to tackle entitlements by capping Medicaid spending, linking Medicare payments to health outcomes instead of numbers of procedures, and making Social Security cost-of-living adjustments dependent on a senior's income -- what's known as "means testing." None of these are new ideas, he says, they just take political will.

On immigration, he wants to beef up border security and make it easier for employers to identify illegals, then punish employer violators with jail time or serious fines.

Pawlenty has a biography that many voters might identify with. But let's hope he does not bury his positions in the course of making that biography more widely known.

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