With speculation raging that he’ll be tapped as John McCain’s running mate, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty delivered a well-honed, if vague speech today about how Republicans can appeal to working-class voters and mostly sidestepped a few politically tricky questions
Though Pawlenty’s lunchtime talk before the National Press Club was billed as a discussion about “Sam’s Club Republicans,” it also represented yet another vice-presidential tryout for one of McCain’s most high-profile surrogates
Recognizing the fever pitch over the veepstakes, Pawlenty turned to humor to skirt the question that had filled the room with reporters at a time of year when much of official Washington enters a deep languor.
The two-term governor and national co-chair to McCain’s campaign opened his remarks with a well-worn but always reliable gag about the elephant in the room.
“I know one of the questions that inevitably will come is, ‘When will the decision be made, who will be picked?’” Pawlenty began. “And I just want to address that right off the top: I don’t have any particular insights as to where Brett Favre is going to play.”
He offered another quip at the end of the question-and-answer session when the matter at hand finally arose after a series of policy and political questions.
What are, Pawlenty was asked by the luncheon moderator, the most important qualities in a vice-presidential candidate?
“Discretion,” he deadpanned, drawing laughs and applause and saying nothing more.
Pawlenty’s speech leaned heavily on themes he’s used in stumping for McCain and other Republican candidates across the country this year.
Acknowledging that the party’s 2006 mid-term losses and more recent special election defeats had sounded an alarm, Pawlenty said the GOP must grow beyond its reliable core.
“In a place like Minnesota, you can go out and get all the registered and reliable Republicans and in a statewide election in an average year, you’ll get about 35 percent,” he observed.
The GOP must reach out to women, minorities and the group Pawlenty has coined as “Sam’s Club Republicans,” named after the economical bulk grocer affiliated with Wal-Mart
Himself the son of a trucker from working-class South St. Paul – “home to one of world’s largest stockyards” – Pawlenty cited his own siblings as an example of the hurdle the party must overcome to shed its country club image.
After rattling off a series of issues on which his older brothers and sisters—among them an oil refinery worker, grocery store employee, teacher and executive assistant—agreed with the conservative line, Pawlenty recalled asking them why they were still favoring Democrats.
“Well, because Republicans aren’t for the working person,” he explained them saying.
Pawlenty offered broad brush strokes in explaining how to woo such workaday voters.
In addition to Reagan-style optimism, he said fiscal discipline and innovative approaches to energy, education and health care would bring them into the fold. Pawlenty used a series of metaphors and anecdotes to make his case.
But, responding to questions from the audience, Pawlenty conceded there were inherent constraints to what his party could do directly to improve the quality of life for blue-collar voters.
“If you define progress simply as what is government not doing that it can do or what is government currently doing that it can do more of, Republicans will never prevail,” he said.
Having touted a positive, optimistic brand of politics – in addition to some kind words about Barack Obama at an event earlier in the day – Pawlenty was cautious when questioned whether the tone of his prospective ticketmate’s increasingly sharp-edged campaign had been positive in recent weeks.
“Inevitably in campaigns there’s going to be some back-and-forth, some contrast,” he said, arguing that what mattered is how the ultimate winner governed.
As for the now-famous McCain ad incorporating Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Pawlenty defended it as a “legitimate area of inquiry” because it raised questions about celebrity versus substance.
Pawlenty was also questioned about whether Vice President Dick Cheney’s anticipated absence from the Republican Convention next month in St. Paul would be conspicuous.
“Ahh, yes,” Pawlenty quickly replied, before implausibly noting that modern conventions were more “condensed,” as though time constraints rather than Cheney’s historic unpopularity would explain his absence.
But, reverting from the role of prospective vice-president to boosterish governor, Pawlenty couldn’t help but take advantage of the convention mention.
Even if Cheney wouldn’t be there, he said, others were welcome to come spend money and fuel the state’s economy.