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Pawlenty preaches to the choir, but some go away unconverted

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In his speech to “values voters,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty talked about his faith in God and belief in small government. Some in the audience liked his message, others aren’t so sure he should be the GOP’s chosen one.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty gives his reaction to the death of Irving Kristol following a speech at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If the 2012 presidential primaries were held today, Gov. Tim Pawlenty would not be on the ticket —  at least if it were up to a crowd of Christian conservative voters who gathered in Washington D.C. this weekend to attend the annual Values Voter Summit.

Despite a well-received speech that Pawlenty gave at the event on Friday evening, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney were still the most popular picks, according to a straw poll conducted at the gathering.

But all was not lost for the soon-to-be former governor of Minnesota, who announced this summer that he would not seek a third term amid speculation that he might run for the presidency in 2012.

Pawlenty came in third among a field that included former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential pick Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is considered a rising star in the party, and former speaker of the House and conservative darling Newt Gingrich.

In fact, in the poll of 597 summit goers it was a veritable three-way tie for second with Romney just one vote ahead of Pawlenty, who was just one vote ahead of Palin.

The summit’s straw poll is not exactly scientific, or even a representative cross section of the country’s Republican voters.

The fact is that Pawlenty has almost three solid years to woo the GOP’s Christian conservative base  —  a group of voters that could help him make it to the White House. And the summit, which brings together hundreds of conservative activists from around the country, provided a great venue for him to begin to do just that.

“If I and the Republicans in Minnesota and the conservatives can govern Minnesota and make a difference and make progress with conservative goals and values and principles in mind, as Frank Sinatra said, ‘If you can do it there, you can do it anywhere,’ Pawlenty said to thunderous applause during his 20-minute keynote speech Friday evening.

Rite of passage
Wearing a black suit and light blue tie, Pawlenty used his time at the podium not only to formally introduce himself to the “values voters,” but also to reinforce his Republican credentials.

In a way, speaking at the Values Voter Summit has almost become a rite of passage for Republican presidential hopefuls

Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have spoken at the event.

Huckabee and Romney also gave speeches at this year’s two-day summit, which included themed breakout sessions such as “Thugocracy:  Fighting the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy,” “Activism and Conservatism: Fit to a Tea (Party)” and “True Tolerance: Countering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools.”

In his speech (PDF) Friday, Pawlenty attempted to hit the usual conservative talking points, including his faith in God, small government and a balanced budget. He addressed his efforts to reduce abortions and his belief that the government should not recognize relationships between people of the same sex as a marriage. He also sought to fortify this list of “values” by highlighting key moments in his governorship, such as signing into law a measure that requires any woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours before the procedure is done and using his executive power to balance the state budget.

Pawlenty used the moment to take jabs at the Democrat-controlled Congress and President Obama, criticizing Obama’s decision to abandon a nuclear missile defense shield in Europe and calling the health-care reform legislation an “absolute financial monstrosity.”

“The president of the United States has said, you know, ‘We don’t have any more money.’  He said that in a recent interview. ‘We’re out of money,'” said Pawlenty. “Well, with all due respect, Mr. President, if we’re out of money, stop spending it.”

In a highlight of the speech for many summit goers, Pawlenty then challenged Obama, who recently said that he would call people out if they lied about the facts of health care reform.

“I accept the challenge,” Pawlenty said. “I will just respond by calling out the president back tonight.

“This is my message: Stop spending the country back to bankruptcy. Stop taxing us into oblivion.  And the next time you address a group of young people maybe you should apologize for the debt you are putting on their shoulders.”

At that, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation.

In a final flourish of oratorical panache, Pawlenty invoked President Ronald Reagan. Oon “a cloudy, cold day in Washington D.C.” in 1981, Pawlenty said, Reagan stood at a podium, waiting to be sworn in as president.

“As if on a director’s cue, the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine hit the podium and him. And Ronald Reagan said later, it’s as if a burst of warmth, or an explosion of warmth, hit his face at that very moment,” Pawlenty said. “As he prepared to take the oath, they opened up the Bible that he was going to be sworn in on and they opened it up to a passage where his mom, Nell, had written.  It was II Chronicles 7, and the passage reads as follows: ‘If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray…'”

Pawlenty continued and, as if on cue, the nearly 2,000 people in the audience began to chant the passage with him, some raising their hands in the air, tent-revival style.

‘He was incredible’
After the speech, many in the audience said they were impressed with Pawlenty.

“He was incredible,” said Amy Kremer, the National Coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, a conservative grass-roots organization. “I like how he talked about stopping borrowing money from China, apologizing to our youth. I really like how he said he was going to call out the president.”

James Lyle, also a member of Tea Party Patriots, said that he especially liked it when Pawlenty talked about what he had done in Minnesota.

“I’d never seen him speak before. I mean I’ve heard of him, I knew where he was from. [But] I didn’t know enough of his record,” said Lyle.

Ken Herron, a small business owner in Florida, said that Romney and Pawlenty were the two strongest potential candidates.  “[And] based on his speech tonight, [Pawlenty] probably has the edge,” Herron said.

Others, however, were not entirely convinced by Pawlenty’s performance.

“It was OK,” said Daria Phair, who works as a librarian in Maryland. “I think Huckabee has more passion than Tim Pawlenty. Of course, he has to sound very religious [at this summit], but I don’t know that he really feels that way. [His speech] was sort of stock phrases, no passion, just what he thinks people want to hear.”

Although Pawlenty mentioned work he has done as governor, Phair said that the speech lacked detail.

“Don’t give me overall philosophy,” Phair said. “Give me one, two, three — this is what I did.”

Jacob Wolf, a student in theology and political science at George Washington University, said he would still vote for Romney.
“I want Pawlenty to be the vice presidential nominee and eventually [the presidential] nominee, but I don’t think yet,” said Wolf after listening to Pawlenty’s speech. “I like him a lot, but right now, I’d rather have Romney. I think he is stronger on economic arguments… [Also] Pawlenty is not that prominent nationally, and a way to do that would be to become the vice presidential nominee.”

But despite all the chatter about Pawlenty’s viability as a presidential nominee, Pawlenty himself tried to downplay the event and the attention his speech later received from the Democratic National Committee

“It looks like Tim Pawlenty isn’t even going to offer the pretense of being anything but an extreme right wing radical anymore,” said DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan in a statement Friday evening.

In response to the attention he has received from the Democratic Party, Pawlenty said he did not know why the Democrats were choosing to focus on him.

“I’m a relatively unknown governor from a small state,” Pawlenty said. “It seems like they would have better things to do and bigger targets.”

But if Pawlenty is relatively unknown now, he apparently doesn’t want to stay that way for long.

After his speech Friday, Minnesota’s jet-setting governor flew to the key swing state of Ohio, where he gave the main speech at the GOP’s “2009 Leading Ohio Dinner,” an event that also serves as a major Republican fundraiser.

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.