Hey, Remember Me?

Tim Pawlenty fights for the spotlight.

Tim Pawlenty campaigning in Iowa

HUMBOLDT, Iowa—It became very clear, very quickly, what the media was looking for from Tim Pawlenty this week. We wanted him to tell us what Tim Pawlenty thought of the other people running for president.

The governor started Tuesday with an 8 a.m. trip to a cafe outside Des Moines, then returned to the Capitol where he joined social conservative groups—the National Organization for Marriage, the Iowa FAMiLY Leader—at the launch of their Values Voter bus tour.

“I want to thank you for standing for a culture of life,” he said. “I want to thank you for standing for traditional marriage. I want to thank you for standing for those values that made this nation great.”

As he spoke, a platoon of handsome young people wearing orange T-shirts passed out fliers for Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, who is likely to announce his own presidential bid on Saturday. A lone conservative protester, John Strong, held up a sign attacking Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for being too kooky. Pawlenty wrapped and walked over to talk to a few voters. A reporter used the lull to ask a question.

“What do you think of Gov. Perry getting into the race on Saturday?”

Pawlenty conferred with his spokesman, Alex Conant. “We’re not doing a scrum,” said Pawlenty. He walked into the campaign’s temporary conveyance, a Winnebago Voyager unadorned by any campaign colors or logos or portraits. (There is a decked-out bus for the “Road to Results,” but it’s in the shop with busted air conditioning.) Back outside, after only four minutes of exposure, the few voters watching all this had shrugged.

“He doesn’t have a lot of zap or enthusiasm,” Strong fretted. “He reminded me of Bob Dole.” Strong will head to the Ames Straw Poll in search of someone better.

The next event was all Pawlenty’s—no “grass-roots” Perrymaniacs, no protesters. A library in Boone, Iowa, up I-35 from Des Moines, handed the campaign its meeting room, and it filled up quickly. Around 50 people, mostly older men, made their way past a table covered in TPaw literature (a picture of the governor in hunting gear; a smiling family photo with the “results not rhetoric” slogan) and vied for a small number of chairs. It was an ideal Pawlenty crowd, completely unconcerned with the flashier candidates, completely interested in beating Barack Obama.

“I’m not looking for pizzazz,” said Len Schabold, a business consultant from the city.

“I voted for McCain last time,” said Steve Lawler, a farmer who lives eight miles east of the library. “McCain could have won, maybe, if he’d had the right running mate. I think that could have been Pawlenty, to tell you the truth.”

Pawlenty arrived and gave them what they expected. His stump speech consists of three or four moveable parts. Depending on how they’re arranged, they can lead to something that loses steam quickly, loses steam slowly, or slowly builds into a raise-the-roof success. They all start well, with Pawlenty trying to convince the crowd that he’s a schlub. The Boone version of the trope is a story about his wife giving him a pep talk about running for governor in 2001—”I’m Rocky Balboa, and this is my Adrian!”—that he remembered when he came into office.

“The job was very hard to deal with from a schedule standpoint, and Mary was holding me to account for my schedule,” said Pawlenty. “We had a little tense discussion about that. I said, ‘Honey, don’t you remember? You’re the one that gave me the inspiring speech in my living room to do this.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I remember, but I didn’t think you’d win!’ “

The underdog act works for Pawlenty. Beyond that ugly, temporary bus, there are other homey aspects to his campaign that contrast mightily to Michele Bachmann’s or even Herman Cain’s. Bachmann barrels into her events, led by security staff, with a sound system blasting “Promised Land.” Pawlenty hugs the wall of a room before being invited up to speak, and he shoots the breeze with voters as long as he’s running late. All that amplifies his pitch: Choose the safe, vanilla candidate. Don’t choose me now, and you’ll come around to me once you’re fed up with this month’s celebrity. “Any bobblehead can come up here and recite the Republican platform,” he said in Boone.

Pawlenty’s implication is that he is the lone nonbobblehead in the field. When he got to the proof for that suggestion, discussing his record in Minnesota—”we cut spending growth to 1 percent a year; we cut spending in real terms for the first time ever”—the crowd was a little less engaged than it was when he was making fun of himself. It perked up again when he returned to President Barack Obama.

“You can stick a fork in him,” Pawlenty said. “He’s done, politically. The polling nationwide is bad, and if you look at the polling in the swing states, it’s even worse. The only way we can mess this up is by choosing the wrong Republican.”

But that’s the problem. When an incumbent looks weak, the other party’s voters can dream big. Barack Obama probably couldn’t have won the presidency had voters not soured so completely on Republicans by the end of 2008. If you remember back to 2005 and 2006, the smart Democratic take was that someone bland with “red state” appeal, an Evan Bayh or Mark Warner, was the most electable Democrat. Bush collapsed, so an African-American guy with a pastor who thought some interesting things about the CIA became electable. If Obama’s so weak, why not roll the dice on a Bachmann or a Perry?

Pawlenty wrapped in Boone, headed outside, and gave an interview to a Seattle TV station all about his lack of momentum (he’s in third place, according to poll averages) and the coming Perry effect. “I respect Rick Perry,” Pawlenty said. “I like him. He’s done a good job for his state.” At his next stop, at the Chantland plant in Humboldt, Pawlenty gave a speech to employees, donned safety glasses for a factory tour, and answered more questions about Perry. “I know Rick Perry. I respect him, I like him. We traveled together. He did a good job for his state.” With voters, one-on-one, he can chat about anything. His political speeches, even his statements to the press, are all assembled from that box of refrigerator magnets. Stay bland, let everyone else burn out.

Pawlenty closed the day with two stops at Republican county picnics. The first was a little tough to find, and I turned around in a man’s driveway as he returned from running errands on a little scooter.

“You’re looking for where Bachmann is?” he asked.

Technically, yes. Bachmann spoke at the Humboldt County GOP picnic before Pawlenty did; later, he would have to follow Herman Cain in Wagner County. Her speech was outside the picnic hall, audible blocks away; in it, she informed voters that she had spent “two weeks” building opposition to the first vote on the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As it wrapped, and she shook hands to the booming sounds of “A Little Less Conversation” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Pawlenty staff prepped for his speech inside the hall, near the for-sale pies and dishes of pulled pork.

It was his strongest speech of the day. He didn’t spend much time talking up his record in Minnesota. He ripped into Barack Obama instead. He spent more time than he had in Boone on a gimmicky, Tea Party-flavored idea: making members of Congress fill out their own taxes without help, “under penalty of perjury,” to remind them how badly the code needed to be slaughtered. As Bachmann’s mammoth bus pulled out, he was waging a war on slickness.

“Let’s remember how this happened!” he said. “A very fancy-talking candidate came through Iowa, and he made a lot of promises!”

Pawlenty got a standing ovation. The Republicans sitting near me were frank: They expected him to be worse.

“He’s much better than I expected from TV and his literature,” said Dean Harman, a local veterinarian. “He’s not near as dynamic as her, though! Boy, she can give a speech.”