Columns

Political Mercury

June 16, 2011 |

By Douglas Burns

 

Pawlenty’s blue-collar fluency will pay off in Iowa

 

In some respects, Iowans are basically Minnesotans who don’t understand hockey.

The differences, of course, run far deeper than that. We’re a state of 3 million. They have 5 million. Our jokes about them are better, too.

But for Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor seeking the White House, connecting with Iowans is as easy as crossing the border between the two states on I-35. You can miss the “welcome to” signs and not notice for miles.

At a Pizza Ranch in Boone, Pawlenty moved among a Memorial Day crowd with effortless cultural fluency — a smart man with a law degree who understands that genuine humility is the coin of the realm in the communities of Iowa he’ll have to win over in his pursuit of the Iowa caucuses.

This Republican is not the snazziest pair of shoes in the store, but he may be the only brand that fits for Iowa in 2012.

For all our Chamber of Commerce posturing to the contrary, rural Iowa is blue- collar. Pawlenty grew up in South St. Paul, Minn., which was, at one point in the 1970s the home of the largest stockyards in the nation. Pawlenty’s father worked the yards (now largely gone) as a truck driver and laborer. The former GOP governor understands the working-class rhythms of life in a way that strikes me as genuine, a far cry from John Edwards’ too-cool-for-school “two Americas” pitch.

To be sure, Pawlenty, who was only recently announced as a presidential candidate, is just days into his campaign in Iowa. But unlike other presidential hopefuls, it’s clear he will play here.

And he’s viable in other states, unlike, say, fellow Minnesotan, Michelle Bachmann, the conservative congresswoman and friend of U.S. Rep, Steve King, R-Iowa. Many GOP insiders and pundits believe Bachmann can win the Iowa caucuses if the field hits five or six active candidates.

So can Pawlenty.

He’s built an able staff here, highlighted by senior adviser and communications consultant Eric Woolson, a veteran of Mike Huckabee’s successful Iowa run in 2008. Woolson knows the media in towns large and small in Iowa, which helps his candidate immensely.

Pawlenty — who aspired to be a Minnesota dentist before getting involved in the Reagan campaign in college — is not of the red-meat-tossing variety. His demeanor is pure Rotary Club.

And this could play well in a general-election match-up with President Obama because with Pawlenty in the Republican corner, the race is more easily framed as a referendum on Obama himself. The Democrats, if confronted with Pawlenty in the general election, will lose a key angle — the ability to paint the Republican as some sort of borderline personality case, an extremist who can’t be trusted.

Yes, Pawlenty’s underwhelming rhetoric and reverse Jack Flash persona may put you to sleep, but you won’t wake up sweat-soaked in the night with nightmares about the world of possibilities for mess and mayhem as you would under loose cannons like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Donald Trump.

One last point on this hockey matter …

Pawlenty has a hobby or diversion that would not occur to most Iowans.

“ Occasionally, if I really need a good mental break and I can’t get out on the ice for one of those old-timers games, I’ll sit at the computer when I’m home at night and pop over to hockeyfights.com to watch a few of the latest videos,” Pawlenty writes in his book “Courage to Stand.” “I’ll drive Mary nuts, calling her over when there’s a really good one. ‘Mary, Mary, come watch this!’ I know she has zero interest in watching those fists fly, but it’s interesting to me.”

He also cops to being “a bit of a wrestling fan.” Professional wrestling that is, of the Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura variety.

Cut him some slack on that, though. Pawlenty is, after all, from Minnesota. CV

 

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.