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The Slam-dunk Case For Pawlenty

I just wanted to post a quick supplement to my profile of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, which appears online today. In the piece, I briefly assert that a McCain-Pawlenty ticket makes a ton of sense but generally leave the case implicit. Obviously I'd encourage you to read the piece and draw your own conclusions. But for those who prefer their dots connected, here's a more explicit, point-by-point explanation (with some additional nuggets that didn't make it into the piece):

1.) The limits of his ideology notwithstanding (see the piece for more on that), Pawlenty has genuine appeal among working-class voters, which could come in handy if the election turns into a contest for downscale Rust-Belters. In the bar scene I depict, I met several middle-aged and older women who described themselves as pro-Hillary Democrats who love Pawlenty and voted for him twice.

2.) Pawlenty is young (47) and vigorous--he runs marathons, plays lots of hockey--which would be a nice antidote to the graybeard at the top of the ticket.

3.) Pawlenty has a well-established, if somewhat superficial, maverick/reformist streak, a la McCain. He's a believer in global warming and has expended a lot of rhetoric (if not political capital) taking on oil and pharmaceutical companies. He'd reinforce McCain's appeal as a somewhat unorthodox Republican.

4.) Pawlenty is smart and extremely fluent in the details of domestic policy--something McCain can't come close to claiming, but which will be pretty critical in a campaign waged over health care, infrastructure, and energy.

5.) He is, at the same time, pretty well-liked among both supply-siders and social conservatives, many of whom are still skeptical of McCain. As governor, Pawlenty backed an anti-gay marriage amendment and signed a "right to know" law requiring doctors to explain the risks and alternatives to abortion. He also won points for repealing a set of graduation standards that conservatives claimed imposed liberal values on school children. On the fiscal side, he's generally cut taxes and spending over the course of his career, sometimes in large chunks.

6.) Pawlenty and McCain seem to be fond of one another personally, which is key since McCain has incredible difficulty faking affection or concealing dislike for people. As one former McCain aide told me: “If political circumstances forced him to pick a running mate with whom he wasn’t personally comfortable, he wouldn’t be able to hide that.” (One of the great McCain outbursts of all time came just after his endorsement of George W. Bush in  2000, in which he didn't actually use the word "endorse" until pressed by reporters. At that point, McCain started grousing, "I endorse Governor Bush, I endorse Governor Bush..." half a dozen times in rapid succession.)

7.) Relatedly, Pawlenty and McCain share a similar sensibility. They both have trouble-maker streaks (Charlie Weaver, Pawlenty’s first chief of staff as governor, cracked up telling me about the time the two of them were messing around with hockey paraphernalia and Pawlenty nearly broke Weaver's hand taking a shot on "goal"--a.k.a.,  fire place of the governor's reception room). And Pawlenty also shares McCain's sometimes bawdy sense of humor. (It was Pawlenty who briefly made news this summer singing his wife’s praises: "She loves football, she'll go to hockey games and, I jokingly say, 'Now, if I could only get her to have sex with me.'")

8.) Pawlenty was an early, loyal McCain backer--he came on board as the campaign's national co-chair back in January of 2007 and stuck with McCain through last summer's implosion. McCain is known to place a premium on loyalty.

9.) Pawlenty was twice elected governor (albeit narrowly, arguably with help from a third-party candidate) in a Democratic-leaning state. Few people I talked to thought he could carry Minnesota for McCain. But he could at least force Obama to spend time and money there, which would not be nothing.

As I say, it's a pretty compelling case. And, from everything I heard while reporting the piece, there's a decent chance it'll happen. As former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, a lobbyist/Washington-powerbroker with ties to both men, explained it to me: If you go through the clinical (and, in fairness, sometimes misleading) process of weighing pros and cons, “You’d say there are probably three or four people who have equally good shots of being on the ticket, and I think he’s in that top three or four.”

As for the major drawbacks with Pawlenty:

1.) Though no one really blames him for last summer's bridge collapse, the symbolism might not be great for a party struggling to overcome the taint of Hurricane Katrina and Iraq.

2.) He's had some contentious dealings with his state legislature, including a partial shutdown in 2005. Again, not the biggest deal in the world, but the symbolism could be tricky. (And, as commenter "Another Chris" points out, he resolved it by agreeing to a 75-cent "health impact fee" on packs of cigarettes, something that didn't exactly endear him to fiscal conservatives or working-class people.)

3.) He's been at the center of a few campaign-finance and corporate-crony-related scandals. None of them is particularly serious, as I explain in the piece. But for a candidate who's already struggled with the internal contradictions of running as Mr. Clean, they could give McCain pause.

--Noam Scheiber