From NBC/NJ's Matthew Berger and NBC's Kelly O'Donnell and Alex Wall WASHINGTON, DC -- When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was asked at the National Press Club what qualities are most important for a vice presidential prospect, he was brief -- "discretion," he said.
Pawlenty -- at the top of most short lists for McCain's vice president -- held a bit of an audition here in the DC area today, speaking both before a Republican leadership summit and the Washington press corps at the National Press Club. Pawlenty used the opportunity to make the case for expanding the Republican Party to welcome so-called "Sam's Club Republicans," essentially those of the middle, working class.
"People deserve and expect a more effective government at a better price," he said.
But Pawlenty may have made the most lasting impression by a remark he gave in the morning in front of GOPAC's leadership summit, suggesting it was the message of McCain's opponent that may resonate the best with voters.
"Say what you will about Barack Obama, and I say a lot of negative things about him," Pawlenty said. "We need leaders, and John McCain is positive as well. People gravitate when you've got something positive to say."
The comments were surprising for some who might be tasked as the campaign's "attack dog" if chosen as McCain's running mate. It also came on the heels of a series of negative ads by McCain.
Asked about the comments later, Pawlenty said some negative campaigning is inevitable and unavoidable. "His oratory is one of we're going to do big, tackle big national issues," Pawlenty said. "If you look at his record, there's not one issue of major national concern that he has led the effort on." Pawlenty also criticized Obama's lack of experience, saying "it is simply a matter of fact that less than four years ago he was a state legislator."
McCain advisers cautioned to not "read too much into" Pawlenty's warm praise of Obama. They described Pawlenty as "one of our strongest supporters" and that he plays an important role on Sunday shows and interviews.
Advisers add that Pawlenty has "not been shy" about criticizing Obama, and they point to his leading role on a McCain conference call in which Pawlenty welcomed Obama to Minnesota and also provided "hard contrasts" on Obama's views on energy. Stepping back, they noted that Pawlenty's praise of Obama's upbeat tone may make it easier to highlight a break when Obama chooses to go negative.
In his speech today, Pawlenty also said Republicans are having a hard time in elections because "we are running against competitors that give the impression they are giving away free stuff."
Instead, he suggested an expansion of the themes of Ronald Reagan -- a common Republican refrain -- while acknowledging many the Republican Party seeks to engage do not remember Reagan's tenure well.
"Ronald Reagan was pragmatic," he said. "We have this hyper-polarized political environment, as to some extent Reagan had in his time as well. But when push came to shove, he got things done."