VP or not VP: For now, Pawlenty likely the man to beat for GOP ticket nod

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When last we left our hero, Tim Pawlenty was hanging from a cliff by his nails while Bob Novak stomped on his fingers for being too renewable-this and green-that at the National Governors Association conference. Despite that savaging by the grand panjandrum of establishment GOP columnists, Pawlenty remains one of the two or three names mentioned most frequently and most favorably by people paid to guess who John McCain’s running mate will be.

There is more than speculation to suggest that McCain’s eye is very much on Pawlenty. The governor traveled to Germany in February to attend the Munich Conference on Security Policy, a policymakers’ confab on international affairs. And as MPR reported last week, the governor has been out of state almost one of every three days this year, much of it on behalf of the McCain campaign.

It’s easy to cite reasons that Pawlenty is not an obvious strategic choice for the ticket. The GOP has already spent a considerable amount of political capital on Minnesota by placing the Republican National Convention here. Pawlenty did not deliver the state’s February 5 caucuses to McCain. And a Rasmussen/Fox9 poll conducted around that time indicated that while Pawlenty’s presence on the Republican ticket would make 29 percent of Minnesotans more likely to vote GOP for president, 35 percent said it would make them less likely to support the Republican ticket.

But a couple of important caveats apply. No one has ever accused John McCain of being a master political tactician, or for that matter a cool-headed decision maker. He’s impulsive, a gut guy. And he likes Pawlenty. Then, too, there is Pawlenty’s evangelical religiosity–little-known publicly, and almost never discussed in the mainstream media, but suffice it to say he’s got true believer bona fides that will be immediately apparent to evangelical movement types, without the record of boneheaded public statements that keeps out-evangelicals like Mike Huckabee from serious consideration.

At any rate, here’s a sampling of pundit-speak on Pawlenty from the last week-plus:

New Statesman (UK): “Alexandros Petersen, Section Director North America at the Henry Jackson Society and a longstanding McCainiac.. sees McCain taking on a number two along the lines of Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, ‘a young, exceedingly-popular governor with a catchy nick-name: T-Paw’. Pawlenty has been a staunch McCainiac from the beginning and his strong stance on immigration might balance some of the questions over Mack’s perceived weakness on this topic…”

Fred Barnes, Weekly Standard: “Presidential nominees once tried to balance their ticket with someone who’d helped win a state they might otherwise lose. This hasn’t entirely gone out of fashion. Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is often mentioned in this regard.”

Todd Domke, Boston Globe: “HERE’S MY RANKING of the 20 candidates – from weakest to strongest.

“BOTTOM 10: Haley Barbour 55, Mike Pence 57, John Boehner 60, Mitt Romney 62, Rudy Giuliani 63, John Thune 64, John Kasich 65, Rob Portman 66, Lindsey Graham 67, Tom Ridge 68.

“TOP 10: Mark Sanford 70, Elizabeth Dole 71, Sam Brownback 73, Chris Cox 75, Kay Bailey Hutchison 76, Colin Powell 78, Mike Huckabee 79, Condoleezza Rice 80, Charlie Crist 81, Tim Pawlenty 85.

“McCain’s VP search committee has yet to set its own criteria for screening candidates, so don’t order your McCain-Pawlenty bumper sticker yet. Meanwhile, Pawlenty might find comfort and hope in what McCain said about him during the 2006 campaign: ‘This is the kind of leadership that I’d like to pass the torch to.'”

Gerald Seib, Wall Street Journal: “Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who matches Gov. Sanford in relative youth (also 47), was an early McCain backer and is deft on the kinds of real-world economic issues that aren’t exactly Sen. McCain’s strength. Mr. Norquist recently sang his praises for vetoing a state transportation plan that included tax increases. And Minnesota is an important swing state (though Gov. Pawlenty’s support wasn’t enough to prevent Sen. McCain from losing the state’s caucuses to Mr. Romney).”

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