SOUTH ST. PAUL, MN -- Steve Sviggum remembers well the day in 2001 when Tim Pawlenty publicly embarrassed him.
Sviggum, then speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, was up to bat in a legislative softball game, and Pawlenty -- House majority leader at the time -- crept up behind him and yanked his pants down.
Two years later, a headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune read, “Gov. Tim Pawlenty's brand of humor sets him apart as he treads the fine line between jest and jeer.”
“Tim Pawlenty is very much a prankster, a jokester,” Sviggum said.
He -- like many of the former governor’s colleagues and friends -- remembers Pawlenty as the funny and charismatic leader of Minnesota.
And, along with being entertaining, they remember him as the political figure who dominated this state’s politics for the past decade. He’s the Republican who won the governor’s mansion twice; he didn't raise taxes; and, in 2008, he set a state record for most vetoes in a year.
But eight days before his near make-or-break Ames Straw Poll contest, even Pawlenty’s biggest champions cannot put a finger on why the presidential candidate is seen as so unexciting. Or why the former governor’s conservative record is not gaining more traction with voters.
“In my cynical times, I would say there was a press person who didn’t like him and once labeled him bland, and everyone else just followed along,” Sviggum said.
Pawlenty is not running for “entertainer and chief,” as he said on “Meet The Press” last month. And his campaign slogan has been “Results, Not Rhetoric,” a seeming nod to voters to look at his record in Minnesota, not how he delivers his message. In a new mailer being sent to Iowa voters, his wife Mary, said her husband should appeal to voters “looking for someone who can do more than make soaring promises or give fiery speeches about what they hope they might do.”
But in the lead up to the Ames straw poll on Aug. 13, polls suggest Pawlenty’s take-me as-I-am strategy is not yet resonating with voters. The latest Gallup poll shows him garnering just 2% support nationally from Republicans.
Questions about Pawlenty’s attitude and demeanor are common during campaign stops throughout the Hawkeye State. Specifically, voters want to know why he did not take the opportunity to go after Mitt Romney for the health-care legislation he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts.
“Tim would normally be very aggressive in a situation like that,” Sviggum said. But, he adds, Pawlenty had always been a “team player” -- which may have been the reason why he shied away from directly attacking a fellow Republican.
“This guy has serious talent,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. It is the rise of what Jacobs calls “the politics of tweeting” -- the allure of short sound bites and quick criticisms -- that has put Pawlenty at a disadvantage.
“Part of it, frankly, is that thoughtful conservatism ... has lost its appeal,” Jacobs said.
As an outside observer, Daniel Wolter -- who worked as a speech writer for then-Gov. Pawlenty -- sees the disconnect between the politician he knew as governor and the one now running for president. “There’s a charisma factor that hasn’t broken through yet,” he said.
At the Crocian Hall in South St. Paul, where Pawlenty first announced he would run for governor in 2001, there is a common feeling -- he’s a nice guy, but not presidential timber.
“He’s just not politician enough,” said Striuder Goff, a Republican who knew Pawlenty's older brother growing up. “It’s too bad. I’d probably vote for him.”
*** CORRECTION *** Wolter, quoted above, worked for Pawlenty as a communications director, not speechwriter.