Former Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty can’t seem to politically separate themselves. Since 2002, they have been tied up in a political Gordian Knot.
Legend has it that the Gordian Knot, tied by the Phrygian god Sabazios, couldn’t be untied and that whoever did untie it would go on to conquer Asia. In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great, according to varying versions, either sliced it with his sword or pulled it from its pole as it had been tied.
When Coleman switched to the Republican Party with significant fanfare in 1996 and went on to win Minnesota’s Senate seat in 2002, he was added to the long list of potential presidential or vice presidential candidates for some time down the road. Now that high honor — and headache — belongs to Pawlenty.
Behind the scenes since 2002, both staff members and those in the media have sensed an uneasy tension between the two men and their camps.
It started with the infamous 2001 phone call from Vice President Cheney asking Pawlenty to step aside to clear the path for Coleman in the Senate race. It now may end with Pawlenty’s decision to issue an election certificate to Al Franken, most likely once the Minnesota Supreme Court rules on a likely challenge of the results in the current election contest trial.
Early on in his Senate term, Coleman was close to President Bush, which worked well then but ultimately became one of the reasons he was highly vulnerable last year. Pawlenty began to separate himself from the president in 2004 and 2006 by not appearing with Bush at every visit. And his political stock rose dramatically when he won re-election in 2006 against a statewide DFL wave and national Democratic tsunami.
That immediately elevated him on the GOP list of national candidates. Add to that his homey style, a relatively strong profile as chair of the National Governors Association and his role with Sen. John McCain’s campaign.
Meanwhile, Coleman was preparing — and fighting — for his political life against an opponent that most in the GOP locally and nationally dismissed.
Now, political life for each of them once again depends on the other.
The difference is that this time the table has turned, and it’s Pawlenty who is viewed as the rising star. If anyone called anyone these days, the official would be calling Coleman, telling him to step aside, especially if Pawlenty needed it for his political future.
The calculation on both sides is growing with intensity. Despite national pressure, Pawlenty must determine how much political capital he can afford to spend to keep Coleman’s Senate seat open and for how long.
Coleman, on the other hand, is rapidly running out of capital with the public, and any appeal beyond the three-judge panel will cost him more. His best chance for a political comeback would be if Pawlenty doesn’t run again, according to the current political speculation.
Pawlenty’s choice is tough, too. If he were to issue Franken an election certificate before the case moved to the State Supreme Court or federal court, his loyalty would be questioned by national Republicans and would affect his national aspirations.
Coleman’s national chances for higher office are now limited, but he could be of benefit to Pawlenty by sharing his national fundraising base. National fundraising is thought to be a significant Pawlenty weakness. And depending on the governor’s decision and relations between the two men, Pawlenty could make good use for his 2012 aspirations of Coleman’s network that he developed as a senator and now while raising funds for the National Republican Jewish Federation.
In the middle of an intense budget battle, Pawlenty also is likely being lobbied heavily by Republicans behind the scenes to not issue a certificate. Coleman, too, may face lobbying from those wanting him to step aside for the sake of the Minnesota GOP, and his own political future.
As Coleman no doubt eyes his next steps, he knows that Pawlenty has grown since 2002 in politically maturity and savvy. The governor also has far more political capital than Coleman, but during a GOP “recession,” Pawlenty has to spend it wisely.
Nationally, it’s Pawlenty this time who can ask for someone to make a call. Sen. John McCain owes Pawlenty for his loyalty and discipline. As the elder statesman of the GOP, McCain is likely the only one who could tell Coleman and National Republican Senate Committee Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that it’s Coleman’s turn to defer.
Deferring isn’t something Coleman’s done, not since Vietnam and never to Pawlenty. The irony isn’t lost, but the political Gordian Knot may finally be cut and Pawlenty finally may be free to try to conquer his own political future.