ANKENY, Iowa — Jim Kirkpatrick is a burly, friendly, 50-year-old certified financial planner. He attended church Sunday morning, then hopped in his car and drove three hours to get here from his home in Fayette, in northeastern Iowa, to meet Tim Pawlenty.
It was another appearance for Pawlenty to hawk his book “Courage to Stand,” at another Christian book store but his first visit this year to Iowa.
With the 2012 Iowa Caucuses set for a year from this week, it was more than just a book-sales excursion for the former governor, and Kirkpatrick was more than just another admirer, reader or autograph seeker.
Kirkpatrick is the chairman of the Fayette County Republican Party, and the first county chairman in this critical Presidential state to endorse Pawlenty.
An early supporter
Kirkpatrick has formed Iowans for Pawlenty, launched a nascent website and a blog, and is rarin’ to go. He’s gotten 1,500 hits on his site the past month.
He met Pawlenty for the first time last July when Pawlenty was campaigning for an Iowa state senate candidate. “It was hotter than the devil that day,” said Kirkpatrick. It was among nearly a score of Pawlenty appearances in this state during 2010, supporting candidates and introducing himself.
Kirkpatrick first heard of Pawlenty when he was a finalist to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008.
“It might actually be a blessing that he didn’t get the nomination,” Kirkpatrick said. “McCain could have chosen Ronald Reagan, and he still would have lost to Obama. It was not going to be the Republicans’ year.”
But Kirkpatrick thinks 2012 could be different.
Before sitting down to sign books for perhaps 85 or so customers, Pawlenty met privately with Kirkpatrick at a Panera Bread restaurant next door in the strip mall in the northern suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa’s largest city.
Kirkpatrick likes the fact that Pawlenty is both “a social and economic conservative.” He said he believes Pawlenty did “a great job with Minnesota … I like that idea that he’s a Midwesterner, down to earth, good work ethic. There’s no ego there.”
As he chatted, other Pawlenty admirers lined up with books in hand to get his inscription. A small group of Iowa and Twin Cities-based journalists swarmed around, too, but there were no national media representatives Sunday. Fox News was expected at yet another Pawlenty book signing in West Des Moines this morning.
What Kirkpatrick said he liked most about Pawlenty was the “fire in his belly.” In years past, Kirkpatrick has backed candidates who lacked that. But not Pawlenty.
“What of that fire, governor?” we asked.
“It stems from a number of things,” Pawlenty said, after signing books Sunday afternoon.”The country’s in big trouble, and we need some people who are concerned about that, who are willing to rise up and be strong and clear about how we got into this mess and help lead us out of it … I think the country could benefit from understanding the Minnesota experience, but also the leadership that you’ve got to bring to bear as the next president of the United States, if I choose to run. … You have to be the kind of person that has your compass set and you’ve got the fortitude to be willing to take some hits …”
So, he feels that fire every morning?
“This morning I woke up at 5 to get my daughter to volleyball by 7,” he said. “The only thing I felt in my belly was a bowl of raisin bran.”
He went on to tell reporters about the country heading for the “financial cliff … President Obama doesn’t get it … He stepped up to the plate in the State of the Union the other night to address the country, and he swung and missed … The biggest issue facing the country is the out-of-control spending and deficit, and he completely whiffed it. So, I get fired up about a lot of things. I get fired up that he is taking the country in a misguided direction and he is not addressing the real issues.”
Timing a key
The 2012 Iowa Caucuses are set for Feb. 6, 2012, a month later than in the 2008 cycle. Indeed, by this time four years ago, many candidates had already announced their intentions. “I think there’s a little bit of fatigue,” Kirkpatrick said, of the lengthy 2010 campaign.
Before the decisive caucuses comes the trend-setting Ames Straw Poll, on Aug. 13 at Iowa State University, what Kirkpatrick called “the Super Bowl of politics,” complete with hospitality tents, pulled pork, corn on the cob and Fox News live telecasts. “It’s the semifinal,” Kirkpatrick said, of the event six months away. People who finish low in the standings drop out.
Before that, the field will shake out. Pawlenty clearly wants to survive that hurdle. Politico reported in December that Pawlenty participated in 18 campaign events in Iowa in 2010, including fundraisers for all kinds of state politicians, and his Freedom First PAC distributed about $100,000 to Iowa candidates.
He is is scheduled to be back in Iowa a week from today. In a program sponsored by an organization called The Family Leader, Pawlenty will speak on three college campuses about his “pro-family vision.” The Family Leader opposes gay marriage, abortion, “special rights to those practicing distorted sexual behavior,” gambling and increased taxes, among other key issues.
In April, another unannounced candidate, Minnesota’s 6th District Rep. Michele Bachmann is slated to speak on The Family Leader program, too.
Pawlenty is playing nice so far with Bachmann. On Sunday, he told reporters that he has a “cordial and positive relationship” with the Tea Party activist and that if she decides to run, she would be a “strong candidate.”
The Des Moines Register, the statewide newspaper and website, devoted a lengthy story to the impact of having two Minnesotans running for the GOP nomination, with competing points of view about Minnesota oversaturation.
Everyone says Iowa, in particular, is all about “retail politics,” about meet-and-greets, county fundraisers, shaking hands with county chairmen and street sweepers alike. Iowans need to meet a presidential hopeful two or three times before he or she can really connect. But it’s also about landing key and ranking supporters. Such as Kirkpatrick.
In a caucus process that requires a relative handful of votes to win or, at least, gain momentum, as few as 30,000 votes can make a candidacy viable. Scoring more than 30 percent of the GOP vote is all that’s necessary to be in the hunt.
“You can take pockets of true believers, my neighbors, my friends from church, people I work with, people I golf with — if I can take them out to support Governor Pawlenty, that’s huge,” Kirkpatrick said of grass-roots organizing.
As Kirkpatrick chatted, nearby was another key Iowa king (or queen) maker, Chuck Larson.
He accompanied Pawlenty all day Sunday and introduced him to some local elected officials who showed up at the bookstore to meet Pawlenty.
Last month, Craig Robinson, the influential blogger at TheIowaRepublican.com, detailed the inner workings of influence around the caucuses and wrote, in part: “When you take a 30,000-foot view of the Iowa caucuses, you don’t see certain influential people making a difference for candidates in Iowa. What you will see are various groups of people who make a tremendous difference for the candidates they support … These groups of people can best be described as a tribe.These tribes usually have a leader who brings with him several key operatives.These tribes provide the candidates they support with instant credibility, institutional knowledge about how the caucuses operate, and most importantly, instant infrastructure.”
Larson was among Robinson’s list of tribal leaders. He and his business partner, Karen Slifka, were recently listed among the 17 most influential operatives in the state and among the 50 most important movers-and-shakers in the state.
A former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and former U.S. ambassador to Latvia under President George W. Bush, Larson met Pawlenty in 2004 when Larson, an Iraq war veteran, was working with families who had lost loved ones in the war. Pawlenty impressed him with his commitment to that cause. Larson was also an adviser to McCain in 2008.
“I think the Tim Pawlenty story is a great story that Iowans will embrace and appreciate,” Larson said. “I think he’s got a record of great accomplishment in Minnesota. He’s had to tackle numerous difficult issues similar to what we face as a nation.”
The Pawlenty narrative is being developed and fine tuned here, the arc of his story: He’s a nice guy, he’s a working-class guy, he’s taken on the Democrats, he’s cut taxes, he’s a family values guy.
Of course, there are many who say that narrative isn’t accurate and that, in particular, his assertions about balancing the state budget and reducing taxes simply weren’t true, what with a $6.2 billion deficit facing the state and property taxes spiking in local communities.
Nonetheless, it is the presidential campaign narrative that is being projected. And his style and personality are being constructed as passionate, knowledgeable, experienced, “down to earth,” as Kirkpatrick said, and willing to fight the Dems.
A banquet message
We have met the stump speech, and it’s not too bad. That fiery belly comes through. For this audience Sunday night — hours after the book signing event — the speech wasn’t a frontal attack on President Barack Obama, but a more generic rat-a-tat-tat on that easy target of “all these politicians running around the country.”
Sunday night, before about 200 members of the Waukee (pronounced Waw-KEE) Chamber of Commerce, Pawlenty’s appearance was supposed to be “nonpolitical,” and devoted to his “story” and his book.
But he was glowingly introduced by the former executive director of the Chamber, Chad Airhart, now the Republican Dallas County recorder, who acknowledged, “I was impressed by his story and admire the governor a great deal.” It sure felt like a political event.
Airhart and the others heard those themes of the Pawlenty narrative and saw the style. Charting the 20-minute speech — delivered without a note, with arms sometimes flailing, with some effective and ironic modulation of his voice and volume — it went from typical post-dinner joke to the message that Americans now believe the country is in decline, that there is a sense of hopelessness, and that China has emerged as the leader of the future.
“That’s a bunch of hogwash,” he said. “We can do anything if we put our minds to it.”
He moved to jobs, cynically criticizing unnamed politicians who describe themselves as pro-jobs.
“It’s really odd to be pro-jobs but anti-business as a policy-maker,” he said. “That’s like being pro-ag and anti-chicken,” recycling a line he has used in Iowa before.
Again, he said, jobs creation shouldn’t come from “politicians, most of whom actually never worked in the private sector in their life,” said Pawlenty, who has been an elected official and sometime lawyer for two decades. Jobs creation has to come from the private sector, he said.
He spoke of lost entrepreneurial spirit because the “government priced you out of the market,” because of taxes and regulations, among other things.
The most effective part of this stump speech came as he explained his view on spending, known well to Minnesotans.
“This is kind of complicated,” he said. “And I know it’s late and you had a big meal … I’m gonna try to say this one slowly because it’s hard to comprehend for some, but if I say it slowly, I think you’ll get it.”
There was sarcasm in his voice. He leaned forward over the microphone.
“Are you ready?” He spoke slowly as if talking to a young child or someone just learning English.
“We … can’t … spend … moooore … than … we … take in …”
The Chamber members chuckled, then applauded.
He went on about the federal deficit. He talked about his Minnesota record, and a state government shutdown — “I set a record for vetoes” — and staring down the unions, and “mindless bureaucrats” and a consumer-driven health care system.
He ended with a pep talk, evoking Valley Forge, winning World War II and going to the moon.
“None of this is going to be easy,” he said. “We can do this … This is a great country …. We can make great progress.”
The 200 chamber members rose, delivering a standing ovation. Soon after, many stood again, this time in line, newly purchased books in hand, awaiting the signature of the author. He’ll be back in a week for the Family Leader event, building blocks, gathering a tribe, trying to take the fire in his belly and transfer it to the handful of Republican voters he’ll need in the coming year.