As we enter the Thanksgiving holiday, one name that will be buzzed about around the table across Minnesota and at other politically driven feasts throughout the country is Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty had a big year, but has an even bigger year ahead of him. His roles as the chairman of the National Governors Association and, by many accounts, runner-up to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain’s pick for his running mate mean that the national stage will continue to be a place that will draw Minnesota’s chief executive.
But at home in Minnesota the glare of the spotlight will be the truest test of Pawlenty’s political and policy abilities. Next week he will likely have to respond to a $3 billion — possibly $4 billion — state budget deficit. That challenge — combined with the decision on whether to run for governor again as well as and how he and the Legislature work together and the performance of Minnesota’s economy — will make him a no brainer as a GOP national star or send him the way of Howard Dean after the scream.
Pawlenty’s strength in communicating and being down-to-earth has guided him artfully through some of the tougher times of his two-terms as governor. But today his ability to deliver bad news with a smile and carry-on with a principle of no new taxes may run counter to the feelings of many Minnesotan’s desire for something different. And since Pawlenty at his core is a political operative, he is likely to have to re-think his political must-dos for the next year. The decisions along the way, and the manner in which he communicates and implements them, will be tell tale signs of where his heart is — in Minnesota or Washington.
The latest political buzz
The biggest fork in his political path is whether to run for reelection in 2010. It is a vexing political puzzle that is testing the amateur psychology skills of Minnesota’s political observers and numerous DFL gubernatorial wannabes.
The latest buzz this week is that many close to him think that he is forging ahead as though he is running. That said, third terms are challenging for governors, and Pawlenty has had fortunate DFL implosions in his last two elections. (The Wellstone memorial and the Hatch/Dutcher ethanol debacle come to mind.) Add to that the fact that Minnesota looks less “purple” after the last two elections, especially in statewide races. All of this will give Pawlenty pause before committing to running or carrying the torch for the most conservative in his party.
Pawlenty is no doubt capable of succeeding in a campaign for a third term, but much of the road over the next two years is very different and much more challenging — both politically and on policy — than it has been for the first six years of this administration.
At home he will have to deal with the numerous DFLers running for governor and the scrutiny and attacks that each move may prompt. Nationally, Pawlenty will be pulled to be a new face and voice for the GOP, and he will have to find a way to stay relevant in a crowded field that includes the names Jindal, Romney, Huckabee and Palin.
If he runs in 2010, he will have to decide whether Lt. Governor Carol Molnau remains his runningmate. The DFL will also likely have a “fresh face” to run against him. That will come with its good and its bad: The good is that the person will be less known than Pawlenty or his previous two DFL opponents. The bad is that Pawlenty will have eight years of decisions to defend and his opponent will be free to challenge the direction that he took in two terms.
So as he digs into his turkey and dressing tomorrow, Pawlenty is likely giving thanks for a calm weekend with his family, knowing that nothing is easy anymore for Minnesota’s governor and rising GOP star. He may be thankful McCain didn’t pick him and he may be wishful for a successful two-term Obama presidency. After all, he has to be thankful that he’ll only be 56 years old in 2016, which means he could postpone his real chance at a national run until 2016.