I covered Pawlenty when he was the governor of Minnesota and liked the guy. Unlike the cold, clumsy image that was created and sold in recent months, I found him funny, caring and a decent person.
He didn’t seem to sell that in the last few months, however, and his hopes for 2012 died in the summer of 2011. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready for prime time.
I spent time around Pawlenty in 2003-2005, while I worked as an associate editor at The Free Press in Mankato. Pawlenty was a Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state, a moderate to conservative in a land known for 10,000 lakes and a lot of social programs.
TPaw won both his races for governor by appealing to what’s called the “out-state” vote in Minnesota, the rural and small-town voters who lean more Republican than their relatives and friends in the Twin Cities. He fought for balanced budgets and in general governed effectively, which was impressive after the poor performance from the man he followed, wrestler/actor/feather boa model Jesse Ventura.
I saw Pawlenty at National Guard events, where he made good speeches and displayed a gentle, decent touch with soldiers and their families.
I covered him at a hunting lodge, where his quiet, wry sense of humor was fully on display. Pawlenty displayed his sense of humor during an overseas trips with other governors when he wore a bright yellow SPAM T-shirt to promote the Austin, Minn., business while his fellow governors donned jackets and ties.
And I saw him deal with the media, which he did with a deft touch and a sense of humor. His presidential ambitions were apparent and his politics and pronouncements took a right turn in his closing months in office as he eyed 2012.
He seemed like one of the Republican frontrunners and the top challenger to Mitt Romney, but the success of his fellow Minnesota, Michele Bachmann, was his undoing in Iowa. Pawlenty finished a distant third in the Iowa Straw Poll Saturday and dropped out of the GOP race Sunday.
The Minnesota Republican Party is now trying to get him interested in a race for the Senate in 2012 and perhaps he will. He’s young — just 50 — talented and a proven winner, at least in Minnesota.
His campaign pitch may have been off, and his moderate reputation turned off some deeply conservative Republicans who were looking for their dream candidate. TPaw have stubbed his toe in this campaign, but we may see him again.
And I bet he’s got a SPAM T-shirt somewhere, too, to remind him of the good times.