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Republican candidates and leaders push the right rhetorical buttons in convention speeches

Congressman Paulsen, Gov. Pawlenty and the whole field of GOP candidates for governor took turns Saturday rallying party delegates with crowd-pleasing one-liners attacking Democratic plans and programs.

It wouldn’t be hard to be a Republican speech writer.

Looking to draw applause from the audience? Predict that U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi won’t be speaker of the House much longer, as Rep. U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen predicted Saturday, when Republicans gathered for their off-year convention in St. Paul.

“Washington is an island,” said Paulsen. “But I’m confident that next November, the American public will put Nancy Pelosi off the island.”

Big cheers from the crowd.

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Other surefire applause lines:

• Say something good about Ron Paul.
• Something contemptuous about ACORN.
• And ridicule any number of the policies of President Obama.

“One good thing about the Cash for Clunkers program,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty told delegates. “It’s going to get those cars with Obama stickers off the road.’’

• It’s always good to praise God.

“Thank and acknowledge God,’’ said Pawlenty at the top of his speech to the Repubicans. “It’s politically incorrect, but don’t be uncomfortable doing it. It’s not the rhetoric of politics. It’s in the founding documents of our country.’’

God — and the governor and the founders who wrote the documents — got a nice round of applause.

Another dependable speaking device: Attack Washington, and all bureaucrats.

Big government, said Pawlenty, is “tyranny in the form of bureaucracy.” Those bureaucracies strip us of our personal freedom “one increment” at a time, the governor said.

Big, big applause.

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The governor didn’t take on the biggest issue in all of Minnesota during his speech, which essentially was the stump speech he’s using as he travels around the country exploring his chances of becoming president.

The issue he avoided is whether the public should help build the Vikings a new football stadium. (This convention crowd would not have approved putting public money into a football stadium.)

Pawlenty brought up the subject on his radio show on Friday, suggesting that “the Metrodome has served us well, but it’s time is fading.”

But as soon as he stepped down from the podium, he was gang-tackled by reporters, wondering if he wanted the state involved in stadium building.

Pawlenty hemmed and hawed.

“Generally, we should try to keep the Vikings here,” said the governor, who moments earlier had told the audience that “I have my veto pen warmed up and ready to go.”

But state money for the Vikings?

More hemming and hawing before suggesting that maybe some local governments could raise the money for the Vikings. (Of course, Pawlenty, in slashing local government aid, has lambasted local governments for spending money foolishly.)

This short post-speech session with the governor was proof again that rhetoric is easier than problem solving.

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Rhetoric links ‘evils’ of Democrats and taxes
Most of the rhetoric at this convention was about the evils of taxes and Democrats, which in Republican eyes are synonymous.

The Republicans are convinced that this is the sort of rhetoric that will return them to power in Minnesota and D.C. They seemed buoyant during their weekend convention, the highlight of which came Saturday when they held a straw poll to show who they favor at this point in the gubernatorial race.

The clear winner: Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall, who won 37 percent of the vote of the delegates who showed up for the convention. (About half of the eligible delegates were on hand.) Rep. Tom Emmer came in second with 23 percent, former State Auditor Pat Anderson was third with 14 percent, Sen. David Hann fourth with 12 percent, and Rep. Paul Kohls finished fifth with 5 percent. Sen. Bill Haas, Sen. Mike Jungbauer, businessman Phil Herwig and environmental activist Leslie Davis finished in the dust.

But, when asked to name their second choice for governor, Hahn finished first, followed by Emmer and Anderson.

Of course, Seifert rightfully was claiming victory. But Emmer, Anderson and Hahn all were expressing how pleased they were with the outcomes, and some of the also-rans were pointing out that it’s a long, long way to April and the state endorsing convention.

Pawlenty, who did not win the straw poll before his first term, said he will “let this all percolate out” before he endorses any candidate.

And most party insiders seem to think that at least three more big names could get into the race before it’s over. The possibilities, in order of likelihood: former legislator Charlie Weaver, Rep. Laura Brod and former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, who spent some time at the convention shaking hands.

Most of the rhetoric skewed far right at this convention, which seemed to fit the politics of most of the delegates.

A shift in tone?
But many believe that tone will have to shift in coming months.

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Businessman Brian Sullivan, a key player in the party, is anti-tax, anti-big government and pragmatic. He believes that Republicans will be able to swing many moderate voters their way “because of anxiety over the economy.”

“Fiscal responsibility is a basic nonpartisan issue,’’ said Sullivan, who added that the Republicans will have to “admit we screwed it up when we had a chance …”

In Minnesota and nationally, he said Republicans will have to make people believe that they deserve another chance and that they’ll also have to “tone down the vitriol. Tonality matters.”

Some believe that a toning down already is happening, in the hearts, if not the words, of Republican leaders.

For example, the Log Cabin Republicans — an organization for gay and lesbian Republicans — seem to believe that the younger generation in the party doesn’t want to waste political capital on such things as gay marriage.

“I think that the party rhetoric is different than the real attitudes,” said Mark Knief, a Minneapolis resident who is chairman of the Minnesota’s Log Cabin members. “I don’t think the younger generation sees it (homosexuality) as an issue.’’

Knief said he was a little anxious when he arrived at the River Centre to man the Log Cabin booth at the convention.

“But everyone has been cordial,” he said.

Well, just about everyone.

One woman dropped by the booth to tell Knief that “AIDs is God’s judgment.’’

Overall, though, Knief said, it’s easier to “come out to Republicans than it is to come out and tell your gay friends that you are a Republican. I think the party is changing. It has to.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.