The street vendors selling “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and Sarah Palin bobblehead dolls left no doubt that the tea party had again come to Boston Friday. But the man here to address them was perhaps less immediately recognizable – and he came here to help change that.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who conservatives praise for his budget-trimming policies in Minnesota, took the first step toward a presidential bid last month when he formed an exploratory committee. Since then, analysts have noted he has a record that Republicans will likely embrace but a style less colorful than many prominent Republicans.
In Boston, Mr. Pawlenty criticized President Obama’s fiscal policies, called for a balanced budget amendment, touted his record as governor, and – perhaps more interestingly – gave a peek at what a Pawlenty presidential run might look like. He must battle for name recognition, says Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.
“He may also be seen as unexciting,” she adds.
His lower profile was evident in the turnout of this year's Boston tea party tax day event. Anne McClure, who attended last year event, noted it had been “much more crowded” last year, when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlined.
“He’s an interesting person to watch,” said Ms. McClure, who admires Pawlenty’s record, but does not yet know who she will support for the nomination.
Despite his mild-mannered reputation, Pawlenty seemed loose during his speech, making a series of jokes. He said Republicans could learn something from the "Rent is too damn high” party, the much lampooned, one-member party from last year's New York gubernatorial race. Pawlenty said he admired the simplicity of that party's message, and suggested Republicans follow suit with a simple message of their own: “The government is too damn big.”
In a CNN poll released Tuesday, just 2 percent of Republicans named Pawlenty as their first choice for the Republican nomination. This put him behind Donald Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ranked first with 19 percent of respondents choosing them. Ms. Palin, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and several others finished ahead of Pawlenty, as well.
Analysts say he could still become a top contender for the Republican nomination, because at this stage, national polls do not reflect how a candidate will do in early battle ground states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina that can give a momentum to a campaign. In 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama trailed then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton by double digits in nearly every national poll. His campaign took off after winning in Iowa and South Carolina in January 2008.
In New Hampshire, Pawlenty appears to be making ground. On Friday, he won a straw poll at a New Hampshire Tea Party tax day event, where he had spoken earlier. Cliff Hurst, who is active in the Manchester Republican Committee in New Hampshire, said Pawlenty had been cultivating relationships with major players in the state party recently.
"He's very warm, and knows how to work a room," said Mr. Hurst.
“I think that’s the obvious strategy for him,” says Mark Blumenthal, senior polling editor at The Huffington Post. “It just doesn’t make sense to try to run a national race, when the goal is to win Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.”
Professor Pearson says Pawlenty has been planning a presidential run since his second term as governor, and has been careful to cultivate a record Republicans would favor. From his energy policy to his crusade to cut the deficit, he shifted more to the right during his second term, she says.
“There are scenarios in which Pawlenty could be the last man standing, because he doesn’t have the baggage other candidates do,” says Pearson.
Some of that so-called baggage other of candidates was brought up during the rally. One speaker referenced Massachusetts' health-care reform, a plan spearheaded by former governor Mitt Romney (R), and one that could now be a liability for him.
Though most at the Boston event had not decided whom to support for the Republican presidential nomination, Pawlenty did have some backers. Jessie Nicholson, the wife of a US marine, walked through the crowd with her two small children, handing out Pawlenty 2012 stickers. Her daughter’s stroller looked like a tiny campaign van, with a makeshift Pawlenty sign taped on it.
“We were very impressed with his decisions,” said Ms. Nicholson, who lived in Minnesota during Pawlenty’s first term. “I wouldn’t be surprised if after today a lot of people make up their minds about him,” she said.
Austin Hess, who held a sign that read “2012: the end of the (liberal) world,” which Pawlenty had autographed, said after the speech that the governor was growing on him. Still, with so many contestants likely to vie for the nomination, he would wait and see what they had to offer before deciding whom to support.