Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. I: Who's Afraid of Tim Pawlenty?

Written by 2008 NEWSWEEK campaign blogger Andrew (Stumper) Romano, Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch is a weekly column that indulges our collective presidential-election fixation ... even though the next presidential election is still, ahem, three years away.


The vast majority of sane, rational people are probably unaware that Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, is doing everything in his power to prepare for a 2012 presidential bid... mostly because 2012 is three years away. Preoccupied with sane, rational concerns─like not dying of swine flu, or searching the Internet for Carrie Prejean's sex tape─they probably haven't heard about Pawlenty's recent speech at a GOP fundraising event in Des Moines, Iowa, where he strode on stage to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" and likened President Barack Obama's stimulus plan to "a manure spreader in a wind storm" before a crowd of 700 likely caucusgoers. Nor did they hear about Pawlenty's convenient decision not to run for reelection in Minnesota, or his new PAC/campaign team, or his gratuitous endorsement of ultraconservative insurgent Doug Hoffman in the NY-23 congressional race, or his recent resume-boosting trip to Mexico, or his harsh words for moderate Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. In fact, most sane, rational people probably don't even know who this Pawlenty character is. 

But the folks at the Democratic National Committee certainly do.

If you want to figure out which of Obama's potential 2012 challengers the Democratic Party is most afraid of, it definitely helps to be political reporter. That's because the DNC is constantly bombarding hacks like me with stories, quips, fact sheets and comebacks designed to influence our coverage of a select group of prominent Republicans─namely, the ones they suspect of harboring 2012 aspirations, like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. Determine which Republican is inspiring the most hate mail and you probably have a pretty good idea which one the DNC sees as the biggest threat. 

The answer─surprise, surprise─is Pawlenty. The least-well-known of the 2012 crop, the Minnesota governor has, according to the Gaggle's patented Gmail filtration method, provoked 28 direct-attack e-mails (i.e., attack e-mails with his name in the subject line) from the DNC since March; by contrast, Palin, by far the most famous Republican in the country, has racked up 27. The next highest finisher, Romney, trails with nine, with Jindal (four), Gingrich (two) and Huckabee (one) bringing up the rear. All told, the DNC has mentioned Pawlenty in 48 e-mails over the past two months, versus 37 for Palin, 16 for Gingrich, 12 for Romney, 11 for Jindal and four for Huckabee. All of this despite the fact that a new national surveyby Rasmussen Reports shows Huckabee as the top 2012 choice of 29 percent of Republican voters, with Romney a close second at 24 percent and Palin (18 percent) and Gingrich (14 percent) hovering in the double-digits─while only 4 percent of respondents picked Pawlenty.

Which raises the question: if Pawlenty has so little support among rank-and-file Republicans, why is the DNC's rapid-response unit expending more energy on him than anyone else? The answer, I think, is that Dems see him as a real 2012 threat─albeit a threat that they can potentially neutralize. Pawlenty's appeal is well documented:

In some ways, the Minnesotan is lucky. The 2012 election is so far off that no sane, rational person is paying enough attention to the early jockeying to be particularly swayed by the DNC's near-constant swipes. But the people who shape public opinion most definitely are. This morning, Dan Balz, the Washington Post's campaign correspondent emeritus, wrote that Pawlenty "has said and done things that have other Republicans wondering about his instincts and his sure-footedness as a prospective 2012 presidential candidate." Balz even─gasp!─compared Pawlenty to Romney. "The real risk for Pawlenty, as Romney learned in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign, is losing his true voice and his authenticity," he explained. "Romney spent so much time trying to reposition himself and picking narrow tactical fights with his rivals that the qualities that might have made him a more attractive candidate were lost in the smoke."

Of course, Pawlenty still has more than enough time to reinforce his strengths and shake off the emerging Romneybot narrative. But somewhere, the DNC's attack dogs are licking their chops.