Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ian M. MacIsaac: Pawlenty and Huntsman compete to unseat ‘Romney by default’

Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a series of three on potential and announced Republican presidential primary candidates. The first piece concerned Newt Gingrich; the third will concern Michele Bachmann. Read the first article in the series here.

  Tim Pawlenty announced officially on Monday his candidacy for President of the United States, and showed himself to be no less bland on that occasion than he did on any previous occasion. Just kidding, kind of. But he’s going to have to learn how to avoid that word “bland” if he’s ever going to make it to the convention next year.

  From Des Moines, Iowa, former Minnesota Governor Pawlenty made a very standard speech about being the kind of candidate who will “look you in the eye and tell you the truth” and tell voters facts that they don’t want to hear. The speech was even entitled “A Time for Truth.”

  Nonetheless, he made not a bold, “truthy” (as Stephen Colbert might have it) statement relevant to that premise. He promised no more bailouts; he promised cuts to entitlement programs; the gutting of Obamacare. Really? All in a Republican primary? Oh, what balls you have, T-Paw!


  All slagging of the Milquetoast Man from Minnesota aside, he represents a very viable Romney alternative. And after Newt Gingrich’s implosion earlier this month I believe it’s become true—as I heard some nameless pundit on Hardball with Chris Matthews say the other day—that Romney is the Republican default for 2012 and the Republican primary is all about seeing if there’s anyone at all better than the guy who got second place last primary around (well, arguably third, but Mike Huckabee isn’t running this time).

  Pawlenty could definitely find himself filling that ‘better guy than Romney, so what the hell’ role, for a few reasons. For one, he lacks Romney’s rich-boy sheen; that matters. Romney is just too shiny, too polished, all the way around for many of the blue-collar—particularly capital-S Southern—voters who make up the base of the Republican Party.

  The former Arkansas governor may be a goofball of epic proportions, but Huckabee wasn’t wrong when he joked in that he beat Mitt Romney in Iowa in 2008 because voters would prefer “the candidate they got laid off alongside, not the candidate who laid them off!” Although Pawlenty is plenty financially comfortable now, he is definitely not a multimillionaire like Romney, and he never ran a venture capital firm, either.

  And more than that, Pawlenty doesn’t come off as a multimillionaire like the Mittster does. Romney has the hair of a multimillionaire, not to mention the alienating, time-is-money, rushed way of talking he has that lets everyone know just how rich and right he thinks he is.


  To bolster his blue-collar image, Pawlenty has made much in his speeches and in his recent book Courage to Stand (in which he has not even the kindness to cite his ghostwriter) of the circumstances of his upbringing. He was one of five children in a working-class family of evangelical Christians. His father drove a milk truck; his mother died suddenly of cancer when he was sixteen years old.

  He writes in his book that he was already working by that time. It’d be a touching remark if he wasn’t obviously trying to manipulate his way into the most powerful position on earth with it.

  Speaking of Pawlenty’s evangelical Christianity, it will likely seem preferable to Romney’s Mormonism to many Republican primary voters—who tend to be quite religiously conservative in their Christian way.

  People do not like to talk about it—ethnicity and creed aren’t supposed to be barriers in the United States—but it must be remembered that Romney outspent nearly everyone in 2008, and he still lost. There had to have been a reason so many voters each took the individual choice to not vote for him. Having what many perceive as a religion heretical to mainstream Christianity had to have played a part in it.

  Although of course Pawlenty would certainly not make it a campaign issue, it could be something that allows Pawlenty success he would not have found otherwise.


  The Mormonism issue isn’t just Romney’s territory this campaign season, either. Religious prejudice is likely to rear its ugly head eventually in the developing campaign of former Utah Governor and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, whose presidential bid has gained substantial stock over the past week.

  He has been mulling around New Hampshire, going quietly from town to town to talk to voters in the front rooms of homes and diners. It was less than a month ago he sent his resignation letter to President Obama after two years in Beijing as the Obama administration’s ambassador to arguably the most consequential foreign nation on earth in terms of U.S. affairs.

  Foreign policy experience is great, but as much as Huntsman enjoys being the only presidential candidate since Jefferson able to share a few words of Mandarin with Chinese expatriate locals, the fact that he is a Mormon—and spent four years as the governor of the country’s most overwhelmingly Mormon state—is going to irk a lot of people, a large percentage of whom will likely be conservatives.

  Doubly unfortunate for Huntsman, the same people who would vote against a candidate for being a Mormon would also be likely to vote against a candidate they see as somehow ‘in league’ with China; or a candidate who supports civil unions for homosexual couples.

  Huntsman is both of these—and he does not hold apologetic stances on his deep familiarity with China and its government, nor on his respect for the civil unions. (Say what you want about the guy: a motorcycle-riding Mormon who supports gay rights is pretty interesting.)

  He has an even more substantial personal fortune than Romney, Huntsman’s coming from his father, who became a billionaire after founding the Huntsman Corporation, a giant chemicals firm. But, having been out of the country serving in a strictly diplomatic and non-political role for the entirety of the past two years, Huntsman is unlikely to have much of a major donor base built up outside of Utah and his own admittedly large wallet.

  But Huntsman, arguably, shares more of Romney’s instant cons than does Pawlenty: both Huntsman and Romney are of a controversial minority faith; both are very well-off, with established family names. Both are seen as establishment figures in Washington in one way or another: Romney for having run for president before and Huntsman for having served in the Obama administration, albeit in a diplomatic role.

  Both have uncomfortably moderate positions on certain issues, to the ire of the Tea Party hivemind: Huntsman primarily on social issues, Romney mainly on his all-too-controversial health care plan he enacted as Governor of Massachusetts.

  In many ways that will appeal to likely Republican primary voters then, Pawlenty is the odd man out of the three. How well can either of them—Huntsman or Pawlenty—fill the ‘better-guy-than-Romney’ suit?


  On the subject of campaign financing, a rather surprising bonus for Pawlenty going into the long drag before Iowa and New Hampshire is that, despite having announced only Monday, he was the first Republican presidential candidate to legally file papers to form an exploratory committee. He has thus been able to raise money for his presidential campaign longer than any of his competitors. He has been doing so for most of the past few months.

  Whether this will serve as a beneficial edge remains to be seen. Pawlenty—despite having been running, politically, since McCain lost in 2008—is still below 10% in most polls of potential Republican primary voters. (Huntsman finds himself even lower, although his numbers are likely to rise in the coming weeks; Romney has been the undisputed front-runner in most every poll taken for the past two years.)

  And despite Pawlenty having some major conservative donors behind him, such as Bob Perry, the founder of the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and Ray Washburne, a major George W. Bush fundraiser in 2000 and 2004, he is far behind Romney in the money game.

  Both he and Huntsman are currently vying for the large crop of GWB fundraisers from 2000 and 2004 who had been vouching for a Mitch Daniels campaign and thus had stayed on the sideline until Daniels’ announcement on Monday that he would not be running for president only hours before Pawlenty’s Des Moines appearance.

  The Pawlenty campaign admits its lack of cash and makes frequent light of it, perhaps so the criticism will less biting. Huckabee did the same thing against Romney in 2008. “We’re not going to be the money champion,” I watched T-Paw say with a goofy Minnesota grin Monday morning on the Today show, from Des Moines, Iowa. “Mitt Romney will be the front-runner in that regard.”

  It got a laugh back in the studio in New York. Good job, I guess, T-Paw. Pawlenty’s ability to change that fact will be the measure of his campaign’s success against the Romney juggernaut.

  By contrast, it will be Huntsman’s ability to distinguish himself as different from Romney—along with smoothing over in the minds of Tea Partiers his view on civil unions and his time working for the President—that will determine his viability.

  Both stand a fighting chance to beat Mitt, that’s for sure; and the chances of a wide-open primary, luckily for us durty librilz, increases daily. So, Republicans, please: don’t let this one be as boring and anticlimactic as I think it will be.

  About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.

Copyright © Capital City Free Press

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