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Mr. Pawlenty goes to Washington

Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An energy production plan? Check.

A proposal to improve health care? Check.

A maverick-like criticism of the Grand Old Party? Check. 

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty is running for president. He’s not, but he is on a short list to be John McCain’s running mate, and the speech he gave Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was something of a screen test.

Pawlenty may just get the job. Jokes got genuine laughter, applause was hearty. And that’s saying a lot given Pawlenty was facing a crowd that could be his toughest critics come next year: the Washington press corps.

While he may be on McCain’s short list, Pawlenty has some of his own ideas about the Republican platform; for instance, he’s making the case that the party should reach out to so-called “Sam’s Club Republicans” who expect more value from the government just as they do from big-box stores.

He says the GOP hasn’t done very well with middle-income citizens in recent years, and claims Republicans need to focus more on being “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”

The party, he says, needs to be one of fiscal discipline, but it also needs to be one of optimism, pragmatism and diversity in its membership.

By the same token, Pawlenty clearly has no trouble toeing McCain’s line — he is the co-chair of the Arizona senator’s national campaign, after all — and he spent much of his speech talking about issues that have so far defined this year’s election.

‘It’s all of the above’
On energy production, Pawlenty proved himself equal to a Washington insider, saying that any energy plan will require offshore drilling and incentives to boost alternative fuels and new technologies like plug-in hybrid electric cars.

“It’s not an either-or scenario,” he said. “It’s all of the above.”

That’s a catch phrase that McCain and Congressional Republicans have been tossing around as they push their own multi-tiered approach to solving high gas prices. The inclusion of alternative fuel development is a departure for the Republican Party, which has been traditionally labeled as a friend to big oil.

McCain is also trying to distance himself from the Bush administration on questions of energy production, playing the same “all of the above” card. In addition to nuclear power plant construction and more off-shore drilling, McCain suggests greater investment in wind and hydroelectric power, among other things.

Notably absent from McCain’s plan is a promise to drill in the highly politicized Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a place that many Congressional Republicans say is ripe for production. McCain says it’s too pristine a place to damage with oil exploration.

Pawlenty is playing the middle.

“As a general matter, we should at least be open to it,” he said. “So long as the environmental footprint is minimal, in my personal view is that we should proceed.

On matters of health care, Pawlenty plugged his own plan. Most health care companies are riddled with inefficiencies, he said. He said he’s trying to fix that by allowing Minnesota state employees the option of accessing their medical records on-line, ultimately cutting back on paperwork and time.

McCain’s health care plan doesn’t get as far into the weeds as Pawlenty’s, but both share the common goal of giving consumers more control over their health plans and the money they spend on health care.

Dead heat

Choosing Pawlenty could boost McCain’s own chances in Minnesota where, by most polls, he’s in a statistical dead heat with Barack Obama. A recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, has Obama ahead of McCain 46 percent to 44 percent.

But Pawlenty gave no hints as to whether he’ll be joining McCain on the campaign trail this fall. He said he has not visited — and has no plans to visit — McCain headquarters while in Washington. Nor did he clear his trip or his speech with the campaign.

And when asked what qualities the second-in-command should have, he didn’t miss a beat.

“Discretion,” was his one-word answer.

Catharine Richert reports on developments in Congress, agriculture issues and other topics. She can be reached at crichert [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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