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Extreme Makeover

Among the many ironclad rules for serious vice-presidential contenders are the following: First, always demonstrate the requisite humility by studiously avoiding profiles by Washington journalists. Second, if a reporter does land an interview, resist leading him into a seedy drinking establishment on a Sunday afternoon. Finally, as a corollary to this point, refrain from placing the clientele of such establishments in headlocks--however affectionate the headlocks may be.

That I recently witnessed Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty wrapping his arms around the head of a mustachioed bar patron might not speak well for his veep prospects. But, if John McCain places Pawlenty on his ticket, these won't be the only precedents he shatters. To take another one completely at random, Pawlenty will be the first presidential running mate to have worn a mullet into middle age.

My encounter with Pawlenty actually began as a wholesome affair. I'd shown up to watch him welcome home a detachment of national guardsmen in Roseville, a Minneapolis suburb. At 47, he is lean and vigorous, with plush brown hair. He beamed like a scoutmaster awarding merit badges. Every sibling of a returning guardsman was prompted to expound on the pride they felt. Every spouse was urged to catalogue the difficulties they'd faced alone. The kids were especially doted over. "I wonder if I met you guys before? You guys gave me the rabbit ears," Pawlenty said to the young daughters of one of the battalion's former officers. It turned out that this first meeting had moved the elder daughter to write a "biography" of Pawlenty for school. "You did?" he gushed. "You didn't even talk to me."

As we were leaving, a stout, middle-aged woman with short, reddish hair flagged the governor down. "Them guys want to buy you a beer," she announced. Pawlenty was bemused. He is taller than average, but his shoulders are narrower than you want them to be. "Oh yeah? Who's them guys?" he asked. The next thing I knew, we were in a dimly lit bar adjoining the American Legion hall where the ceremony had taken place. It was barely three o'clock, but the regulars looked like they'd been imbibing for hours. Women with faded tattoos fought to snap cell-phone pictures. ("I don't want a group photo, I want to be alone," demanded one.) A shaggy-looking man named Mer sidled up to Pawlenty, who greeted him with a disquisition on nearby fast-food joints. ("I used to date a girl in Roseville," the governor said, explaining his knowledge of the local cuisine.) Pawlenty only managed to pry himself loose by pleading that his wife would kill him if he turned up even later. This prompted more cooing. "Ooh, I love your wife. ... She knows how to fish," exclaimed a woman named Joyce.

In recent years, as the GOP's K Street ties have ravaged its image and the Bush administration has grown oblivious to the struggles of ordinary Americans, a vanguard of conservative intellectuals has proposed rebuilding the party along populist lines. "Sam's Club Republicanism," as the likes of David Brooks imagine it, would ease the economic anxieties of working-class voters while promoting old-fashioned virtues like marriage and child-rearing. As a political strategy, it would bond Reagan Democrats to the GOP once and for all, something that's grown increasingly urgent amid the attrition of the last few years.

As it happens, it was Pawlenty--the son of a truck driver from the blue-collar enclave of South St. Paul--who first coined the Sam's Club phrase back in 2001. At the time, Pawlenty found himself in a fight for the gubernatorial nomination with a millionaire political novice named Brian Sullivan. Sullivan had spent a minor fortune touting himself as the embodiment of conservative purity. Pawlenty's response was to paint Sullivan as an economic elitist. He wondered if Sullivan might reinforce "the stereotype of the Republican Party ... that we're all a bunch of wealthy snobs" and urged the party to reach out to member's of "Sam's Club, not just the country club." That Pawlenty not only won the nomination, but went on to win two terms as governor of a Democratic state, has, not surprisingly, turned heads in Washington. Even Ted Kennedy has pronounced him "one of the most persuasive Republicans I've ever heard." But, while there's no doubting Pawlenty's considerable political skills--and the impeccable logic of a McCain-Pawlenty ticket--he also highlights the implausibility of the GOP's working-class makeover.

That Pawlenty would feel at home among downscale Minnesotans is hardly surprising: He literally was at home with them for his first 18 years. Pawlenty's Teamster father was part of the Eastern European working class that powered South St. Paul's once-thriving slaughterhouses. "People used to tease us because the town had a certain smell to it," Pawlenty recalls. "They'd say, 'God, something smells so bad.' We'd say, 'What are you talking about?' We didn't notice." Few people moved in or, more surprisingly, out of the community. But its strong union presence, its proud conservative ethic, and its first- rate schools led to a gradually rising affluence during the first half of the twentieth century.

Beginning in the late '60s, however, the meat-processing plants began to close as the industry decentralized. The layoffs created massive unemployment--nearly 10,000 lost jobs in a town of 25,000. By the time Pawlenty, the youngest of five children, was a teenager, it was clear that the stockyards were doomed. Pawlenty's cancer-stricken mother made his siblings promise to send him to college--he would be the first in his family to go.

Pawlenty put himself through the University of Minnesota and then law school. He spent several years at a prestigious Minneapolis firm, nurturing his political career along the way. In 1988, Pawlenty served as the political director for the reelection of U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger, a moderate Republican. Pawlenty became majority leader of the state House of Representatives in 1998, a mere six years after entering the chamber.

One of the names that often surfaces in discussions of Pawlenty--with both admirers and detractors--is Richard Nixon, another whip-smart outsider who quickly ascended the political ranks. "A line on Pawlenty for a long time is that he has very much wanted to be a member of the political and moneyed class, " says David Strom, an anti-tax activist who's worked closely with Pawlenty. "I don't mean it in an unflattering way, but Nixon was very much the same way--trying to get into that club which he wasn't born into."

When you look back over Pawlenty's career, it's not hard to discern an ambitious climber--even flashes of Nixonian cunning. Back in 2001, for example, Pawlenty was preparing to run for U.S. Senate while his GOP rival, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, made a bid for governor. But the White House had other plans. It believed Coleman would be the stronger Senate candidate and persuaded him to change course. As the story goes, no less an eminence than Dick Cheney called Pawlenty the morning of his campaign announcement and asked him to step aside. Less well-known is that the call, according to people close to the situation, was engineered by Pawlenty himself--and that there were no plans for an announcement. After the White House privately threw its weight behind Coleman, Pawlenty negotiated the dramatic call as a kind of consolation prize. He reasoned that a personal plea from such a high-profile Republican would demonstrate that Washington took him seriously.

Whatever the behind-the-scenes intrigue, Pawlenty's public profile has always held a certain appeal. He may be the first generation of politician to benefit from a kind of working-class identity politics, and he endlessly exudes what you might call blue-collar pride. "Let me give you the quick rundown," he said during our interview. "My oldest brother Steve worked for most of life--forty-plus years--in a grocery store. He was with the United Food Commercial Workers. My other brother Dan spent most of his life in an oil refinery; he's now a municipal worker. ... My sister Rose is a special-ed aide in a public school. My other sister has been a secretary for forty years."

As governor, Pawlenty has bashed pharmaceutical companies for gouging consumers and oil companies for stifling alternative fuels like ethanol. He once took after wealthy Indian casino operators, suggesting they split their profits with the state. And, in the classic Reagan Democrat mold, he's coupled his populism with a social conservatism nourished by his Catholic upbringing--an abortion "right to know" law and efforts to ban gay marriage and ease restrictions on concealed weapons. "Pawlenty would send all the right signals to conservatives, but he's not going to scare moderates and independents," says Todd Harris, recently a strategist with Fred Thompson's presidential campaign.

It all sounds like perfect veep grist. But there's a rub: As McCain's vetters rifle through their Pawlenty dossier, they're sure to home in on a longtime associate named Elam Baer. During the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, a telecom company owned by Baer paid Pawlenty $4,500 per month in unspecified consulting fees, some $60,000 in all. Though his office points out that the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board found no wrongdoing, Pawlenty has never fully explained what he did to earn the money. He also served on the board of another Baer venture when a subsidiary switched unwitting customers to less desirable calling plans. (Pawlenty has said he was unaware of the practice, which cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle.)

Neither charge is especially damning in itself. But they do hint at a broader problem with Pawlenty's image. Sure, he's happy to break with GOP orthodoxy. To name some recent examples: He's negotiated a regional reduction in greenhouse gases and even flirted with raising the state's gas tax. But, when you pore over his record, those deviations are the outliers. For all the talk of Sam's Club, he's governed as a standard-issue fat-cat Republican.

There is, in fact, little in Pawlenty's oeuvre that Grover Norquist would object to, as Norquist himself recently assured me. Back in 2002, he signed a no-new-taxes pledge thrust upon him by Strom's advocacy group. At the time, Minnesota was facing a projected two-year deficit of about $1.6 billion. When he took office the following year, the figure had ballooned to over $4 billion, much of that thanks to the upper-income tax cuts he'd pushed as majority leader. Yet Pawlenty didn't relent. He cut massively from social spending programs and aid to local governments. This resulted in years of rising property taxes. (Pawlenty notes in response that property taxes get set locally. "We expected cities and counties to keep a lid on taxes and hold down spending," he says.)

As Democrats have gained ground in the legislature, Pawlenty has supported marginally more spending on health care, education, and infrastructure. But no one could confuse him for Hubert Humphrey (or, for that matter, George W. Bush). Even Pawlenty's high-profile assaults on drugmakers and oil men fizzle upon scrutiny. The only practical upshot of the pharma initiative was an infrequently visited website flagging drug bargains in Canada. His tough words for Big Oil trailed off once the 2006 campaign ended.

Talking to Pawlenty at the American Legion hall, I got the impression his strain of Sam's Club Republicanism is largely about marketing. I asked if the party could survive in its present form--with working-class people delivering more and more votes, but wealthy people providing most of the financing. "I don't think it's a class-warfare issue at all," he told me. We were sitting at a brown folding table. Pawlenty kept his hands in his lap and leaned toward me, giving him the look of a dutiful grammar student. "We have to change not [our] values and principles--I want to be clear about that. ... We're going to have to do a much better job about having messengers, messages that resonate. ... It helps if you could say, 'Look, I've been in your spot. Let me tell you how it worked, didn't work for me.'" Pawlenty may genuinely want to ease the strain on working people. But what he's selling them is a self-help manual, albeit in language they can relate to. It's not the party of Sam's Club per se--but of moving from Sam's Club to the country club in ten simple steps.

That's a shame, because Pawlenty seems to have earnest public-policy interests. (One quirky if modest Pawlenty idea: sell Canadian prescription drugs at American Indian reservations.) His former boss Dave Durenberger, who now heads a health policy think tank at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, recalls the young Pawlenty barraging him with policy questions on their many car rides across the state. Durenberger goes so far as to say Pawlenty would have been more comfortable in the U.S. Senate, where he could have embraced his wonkish instincts, rather than the governor's mansion, where he faces constant hectoring from conservatives.

As he moves toward a possible berth on a McCain ticket, Pawlenty is discovering that national GOP politics are, if anything, even more restrictive. He seems to have learned that, in today's Republican Party, the surest way to jeopardize a promising career is to have your fiscal manhood called into question. Back at the American Legion hall, I asked why he thought Mike Huckabee had come up short this year. Pawlenty told me that "social conservatives, faith-based conservatives really liked his message. But there were some economic conservatives who did not." There are certain rules even a barroom headlocker knows he can't break.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Click for the previous and next article in TNR’s Veeptacular. And for a full index of our 2008 v.p. coverage, click here.