TAMPA, Fla. — “We hope you run, governor. You did a fine job in the great state of Minnesota.” This was the last man getting former governor Tim Pawlenty to sign his book in an appearance in Tampa Friday night, and he expressed what the two dozen others at the event said to the unannounced presidential candidate.
Pawlenty was signing copies of his just-released book “Courage to Stand.” He’s in the first week of a four-week book tour that will take him to politically significant states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Texas and Florida. The governor had just been in New York doing the TV rounds, including joking with Whoopi Goldberg about being his running mate. The book tour grind is nothing compared to what he’ll face if he runs for president. “Yes I am tired, but I can’t be tired,” Pawlenty said, smiling and signing a stack of books after the line went down.
The turnout at the Barnes & Noble store in Carrollwood, a northern suburb of Tampa, was small but very welcoming. (There are two Barnes & Noble stores in Tampa, the other in a tougher part of the city, not the Republican demographic.) The store’s community relations director said advertising by Pawlenty for the event was cut back after the shootings in Tucson. An off-duty Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy stood about five paces from Pawlenty; security is hired by the bookstore whenever there’s an event, the employee said.
The talk in line while people waited was like a script from Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. Talk about unions being an impediment to almost everything; about too much political correctness in the schools; about flying the Confederate flag as a part of history, not a sign of racism; about government being the problem, not the solution. Conversational snippets: “Barney Frank should be tarred and feathered. And Nancy Pelosi — but the feathers wouldn’t stick to her, they’d be so disgusted;” “The majority doesn’t have a say anymore;” “The Tea Party will bring us back to where we used to be;” Obama was elected by “Obama zombies, people who never voted before and shouldn’t have voted” because they didn’t know anything. One man said about the Tucson shootings, “If that had been a Tea Party thing that guy would have gotten off maybe one shot,” adding, “I never go anywhere without my gun.”
The shared theme from the people in line was expressed by Carl Folkman, a businessman from nearby Crystal Beach who’d run for county commissioner in the last cycle, lost, but will run again. “I’m just looking for someone who will limit the federal government to what it was meant to be,” Folkman said. “Government doesn’t create anything, doesn’t produce anything, it just spends.”
He gestured to his two young boys, with him and his wife in line, and said, “We have to get this under control in America or it’s just not going to be here.
“It all gets down to two words,” Folkman said of why he’s interested in Pawlenty. “Fiscal accountability.”
Others said he’s young, he’s got experience, he’s run an organization, he understands that this country’s been going in the wrong direction. Ellen Folkman, Carl’s wife and a food writer for The St. Petersburg Times,said politicians are afraid to cut budgets or programs, and she’s paying attention to Pawlenty to see if he has the courage he claims in his book title.
Pawlenty showed his charm and sunny personality, talking easily with kids, asking people routine questions and listening to the answers. “You should come up to BIR (Brainerd International Raceway), we got a nice strip up there,” he told one young man wearing a “Racers for Christ” sweatshirt.
Pawlenty stands a little stiffly for pictures, arm around shoulder, but his smile is bright and unwavering. He laughs easily, is approachable, jokes about himself being neither a celebrity nor a rich candidate. He projects ease and calm rather than gravitas or charisma.
Bruce Lambrecht, who with his wife Jeanne Braun (a former Pawlenty staffer) splits time between Fort Myers and Minnesota and came to the signing, said Pawlenty’s style, not just his record and experience, is right for the times. “People are looking for civility, and Pawlenty has never been a yelling and screaming type.”
The exposure of the book tour and TV appearances will help Pawlenty’s name recognition. But he’s got a ways to go – the recording on the Barnes & Noble store phone said: “Join us January 14 for a book signing with Jim Pawlenty.” The signs outside the store, and on the website, got his first name right. The promotional material for his book paints Pawlenty as having “dramatically reformed government, cut spending, and put Minnesota back on track — all without raising taxes.”
Nowhere in sight, of course, are the criticisms of Pawlenty’s policies and the shape he left the state in — this is promotional stuff, after all. And it was sweet orthodox doctrine to the small group in Tampa.
Pawlenty didn’t give a talk at the bookstore, just chatted. But he had spoken Friday morning in Miami to the Hispanic Leadership Network conference, and he said in Tampa that he told the group what he tells his Republican colleagues about Hispanic voters: “Don’t just assume that they’re only interested in immigration. They’re interested in jobs, energy, fiscal issues.” To attract Hispanic voters, Republicans have to show them sound ideas on all issues, Pawlenty said.
Entrepreneurialism was alive and well at the book signing — a hawker selling campaign buttons outside the store (“Friends don’t let friends vote Democrat,” “LOL” with the Obama logo in the “O”) tried to get the governor to sign some “Pawlenty for President” buttons. The store’s community relations manager let him get one signed. Sales were slow.
Pawlenty’s last signature was on one of the posters advertising his appearance, which he gave to an 18-year-old young man just finishing home schooling before heading off to Brigham Young University. Matthew, whose mother asked his last name not be used (“There are a lot of weird people out there,” she said), was encouraged by Pawlenty to consider public service. Matthew said he will. “I hope he runs in 2012,” Matthew said. “He’s a true conservative, he’s what the country needs.” Pawlenty’s inscription on the poster: “Stand strong and keep the faith.”
Bruce Benidt is a communications consultant and former Star Tribune reporter and college journalism teacher. He recently moved to the Tampa area.