Minnesotans always have an extra spring in their steps when one of their own succeeds on the national or international stage. Beyond two favorite sons as vice presidents, Minnesota has had more than its fair share of recognized celebrities. This time it wasn’t meant to be for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty appears to have made it to the finals of what should be termed “Running Mate Madness.” But in the end, it may have been Minnesota’s lack of political weight – or Pawlenty’s lack of national political weight – that dismissed him from the process.
On paper Pawlenty measures up well to be McCain’s running mate, but in pragmatic modern politics he lacks some of the must-haves in a highly competitive presidential race.
Here is where he likely came up short:
Favorite son/state in play
Minnesota is not likely to go to the GOP this year regardless of Pawlenty being on the ticket. As Jesse Ventura proved in 1998, if young people turn out to vote, Minnesota has a different electorate. The 18- to-24-year-olds will turn out in Minnesota this year, and that is not good news for the McCain ticket.
Minimal national following
Among GOP activists, Gov. Pawlenty couldn’t hold a candle to the profile of people like former Gov. Mitt Romney. When polls of delegates and interviews of GOP activists were conducted, the reaction to Pawlenty’s name was largely a blank stare.
The Biden factor
Barack Obama’s choice of Sen. Joe Biden was bad news for Pawlenty. McCain’s age and health are on the minds of voters, and at a time when international affairs are a key issue, a governor from Minnesota with little foreign policy experience wouldn’t stand up to Biden and his credentials. Being a heartbeat away from the presidency – and having that on voters’ minds during the vice presidential debate – could have been a disaster for McCain and Pawlenty. Even Minnesotans who love Pawlenty were concerned he couldn’t go toe-to-toe with Biden.
Pawlenty is a gut politician. When he follows his gut, he is a formidable operative. His challenge has been that he is resistant to having a lot of counsel from others. Because of this he has not built a notable political team that is necessary to navigate national party politics. Earlier this year he added former GOP national chair Ken Mehlman to his inner circle in an effort to be seriously considered as a vice presidential candidate and to have more intelligence and presence in Washington, D.C. If Pawlenty is going to stay on the national stage, he needs to build a much larger circle of top-notch insiders to be on his side.
Ultimately, regardless of fault, the bridge is more than just a disaster for Minnesota. It is a symbol for the country of the challenges the GOP faces on the issue of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. The bridge’s collapse was not Pawlenty’s fault. But in a national campaign, it would have been a weak spot in his profile that would have resonated with swing voters across the country and brought attention to the Bush administration’s domestic policy shortcomings, including Hurricane Katrina.
Minnesotans of all political stripes want the acknowledgement that our state is still capable of producing leadership like the political icons of the past. Our state can. And Pawlenty is potentially one of those leaders. Whether or not McCain wins, Pawlenty’s name will continue to be on the short list of potential national leaders. A few more years as governor – or serving in some other position – will serve him well. In any event, his down-to-earth style and authentic personality will serve him well wherever he goes.