Who can pick Pawlenty’s plan?

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If you’ve been looking for a chance to call me crazy, here it is:

I’m starting to take Tim Pawlenty at his word when he says he doesn’t want to be a vice presidential candidate.

Has he issued a Sherman Statement on the topic? No, of course not. No smart politician would. But let’s do a quick breakdown of what we know right now:

* Gov. Pawlenty is a skilled politician. He has run in and won two statewide elections, one of which took place in the Democratic tsunami year of 2006, and he is very good at sticking to his message.
* Pawlenty is currently the chair of the National Governors Association , an important policy and political networking tool for governors of both parties.
* Pawlenty has been active on the campaign trail for John McCain.
* Pawlenty has said numerous times that he intends to finish his term, scheduled to end in January 2011.

It’s his work on the stump for McCain that has people thinking he’s gunning for a veep pick. But yeoman’s work by my colleague Tom Elko shows us when and where Pawlenty has appeared on McCain’s behalf. Clearly there are other factors that influenced Pawlenty’s schedule other than pure politics — there were some pretty major floods and a bridge collapse over the summer, after all, and those likely stole some of his attention. But getting on the stump for McCain clearly serves Pawlenty’s personal purposes at least as much as it does McCain’s. They’re not friends; they are political allies. Look where he’s traveled on McCain’s behalf: Iowa (easy; geography is on Pawlenty’s side), Michigan (home to a large number of RNC delegate votes) and New Hampshire (one of McCain’s strongest states in the primary schedule).

What does Pawlenty’s travel to New Hampshire do for McCain, if he was already strong there and headed for a victory there? Was the New Hampshire trip just for McCain, or was it for Pawlenty too?

And that’s the crux of the matter. Serving as a national co-chair for a major presidential campaign to support your chosen candidate is all well and good, but the profile it helps you build is even better. How about this scenario:

* The GOP presidential candidate loses. The Democratic nominee is sworn into office. Throngs rejoice in the streets of Washington, D.C.
* Pawlenty follows through on his stated intention of finishing his term.
* Pawlenty walks away from the gubernatorial campaign, leaving Marty Seifert or whoever’s in line in the GOP pecking order to try their hand at succeeding him.
* Pawlenty immediately starts running for president himself.

Right now, this scenario makes a lot more sense than Pawlenty-as-veep. Why wait eight years to run the show, assuming you win three times (twice as veep, once on your own), when you can wait four years and run yourself? Tim Pawlenty has a growing national profile, contacts in early voting states in primary season (assuming the schedule remains somewhat constant heading into 2012), and if he retires from the governorship in 2010 he can walk away, as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee did in 2006, on his own terms without facing electoral defeat. He could even have a big “Mission Accomplished” banner … well, maybe not. But he could call his mission accomplished. He could claim conservative bona fides on tax issues, but the Republican establishment would see his two-term-Republican-governor-in-a-blue-state record and drool at the opportunity to pick off one or two states in the upper Midwest in the Electoral College.

Blame is unimportant. But the DFL and its leaders in the Legislature would do well in the next legislative session to force Tim Pawlenty to make some hard decisions about where his political future lies. The harder those decisions, the better the position the DFL and the Democratic Party as a whole will be in when Pawlenty decides which path to take. Coincidentally, chances are good that forcing those hard decisions will also be good for the DFL’s legislative priorities, too. It’s a win-win.

Of course, maybe I’m just being crazy and that scenario I outlined above is on no one’s mind but my own.

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