And They’re Off…Pawlenty Launches 2012 GOP Presidential Race

BY David Chalian  March 22, 2011 at 8:50 AM EST

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit last month. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

The Morning Line

With yet another highly produced Hollywood-style video, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has taken the plunge as the first major contender for the Republican presidential nomination to open an account with the Federal Election Commission for the purposes of eventually setting up a full-blown campaign.

Team Pawlenty stuck to its plan to announce the formation of the campaign committee despite a very busy news day packed with U.S.-led (for now) military action in Libya and continuous updates from Japan’s nuclear and humanitarian crises. In fact, Pawlenty’s announcement didn’t get a single mention on any of the three major commercial broadcast network newscasts on Monday night.

(FYI: In the eyes of the FEC, there’s no difference between what candidates like to call an “exploratory committee” and a presidential campaign committee. Candidates like multiple bites at the free media apple for rolling out a candidacy and an escape hatch should the money and support not immediately materialize, hence any talk of an “exploratory committee.”)

Dan Balz of the Washington Post writes:

“The former governor carries less obvious baggage than some of his better-known opponents. Aides said Monday that he will seek to portray himself as a bridge between the fiscal and social conservatives within the party. And, aides said, Pawlenty has shown that his ability to appeal to independents would make him the strongest potential candidate against President Obama in the general election.”

During a tele-town hall with supporters who signed up on his website, Pawlenty emphasized what he sees as his broad reach when compared to the appeal of his potential opponents.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“‘I think I’m going to be unique in the field to be able to deeply and genuinely appeal across that whole spectrum,’ Pawlenty said of the different conservative factions. ‘It’s fair to say that many of them [other candidates], and maybe all of them, really will primarily appeal to just one of those categories, maybe one-and-a-half of them, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to cover the full spectrum like I can.

‘I think I’m in a position to really authentically appeal to the whole conservative movement and unify it,’ Pawlenty said.”

POLITICO notes that one of Pawlenty’s greatest liabilities inside a Republican nomination contest may be his previous support for cap-and-trade. He has since reversed his position, but will no doubt continue to be pressed on the issue by his opponents, the press and the voters.

It was as smooth of a rollout as a new presidential aspirant could hope for, if a bit poorly timed to maximize television news coverage.

However, it was the fund-raising calendar that dictated the timing more than anything else. With the late start to the presidential contest, the second quarter fund-raising numbers to be reported to the FEC on July 15 will be an important test of a candidate’s strength. Pawlenty, far less known and without the personal wealth of some of his opponents, needed to make sure his bank account was open and ready to receive checks for the entire three-month period of April 1 through June 30.

AIR CLAIRE

This probably isn’t the headline Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would have dreamed up for herself at the beginning of what’s expected to be a potentially tough campaign for re-election: “McCaskill pays back taxes for controversial plane,” blares the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The “Air Claire” controversy has engulfed Sen. McCaskill’s campaign for the last couple of weeks. Monday, on a conference call with reporters, the senator dropped yet another shoe by announcing that she and her husband had failed to pay nearly $300,000 in property taxes on a private plane she purchased in 2006.

“This was a mistake,” Sen. McCaskill said on the call. “It should have been reported in Missouri. It should have been paid in Missouri.”

She went on to say that she has convinced her husband to “sell the damn plane.”

Two weeks ago, POLITICO first reported that Sen. McCaskill had used taxpayer dollars to fly on the private plane in which she and her husband have an ownership stake.

It was then revealed that at least one of those trips billed to the taxpayers was for purely political travel. Sen. McCaskill has since paid back the cost of those flights to the U.S. Treasury.

But the drip, drip, drip nature of this story has placed her in a near-constant defensive posture since it began.

Republicans have pounced.

“Can Missouri voters even believe anything Senator McCaskill says anymore? This is the third time in less than two weeks that she’s had to change her story about her private plane, and she only admitted any of her wrongdoing once she got caught by the media,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Jesmer said in a statement. “It’s high time for McCaskill to finally live up to the same standards of transparency and accountability that she demands of others by immediately releasing her shell company tax records.”

The most potent political problem caused by the plane fiasco is one less of accounting impropriety, but the far more perilous one of image.

Sen. McCaskill loves to portray herself as a homespun, down-to-earth Missouri mom. Most Missourians don’t run into accounting problems about their taxes on their private planes. Being seen as out of touch is far more threatening to her political future than confessing to some unpaid taxes.

Several Republicans are considering a run against Sen. McCaskill next year.

BARBOUR DOUBLE-HEADER

Haley Barbour is getting a lot of attention these days. The question is whether it’s the kind of attention the Mississippi governor wants.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times and the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty both have profiles of Barbour Tuesday that examine the Republican’s background and the potential liabilities scattered throughout his deep resume.

Here are the top two graphs from Zeleny’s piece:

“He became wealthy as a lobbyist, representing tobacco companies and foreign governments. A former Republican Party chairman, he would seem the ultimate Washington insider. A white Southerner, he has faced questions about his remarks on race.

“As he steps closer to becoming a presidential candidate, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has some explaining to do. And rather than running away from his background, he is embracing it.”

And this is how Tumulty begins her report:

“Say you were a political party on the upswing, looking for the ideal candidate to defeat a president who had been elected on hope, change and the chance to make history.

“Probably not high on your list would be: 1) a former lobbyist who made millions carrying water for tobacco companies, the oil industry and foreign governments; 2) the governor of a state ranked at or near the bottom in pretty much every measure of its residents’ well-being; and 3) a beefy southerner who kept a confederate flag autographed by Jefferson Davis in his office and who has a Delta drawl as thick as Karo syrup.”

Right now Gov. Barbour is polling in the low single digits with limited name recognition among Republican voters. With Gov. Barbour preparing for what appears to be a late April announcement, things could go one of two ways. Either Republican voters will embrace him as someone with the right experience for the job, or they’ll view him as too much of an insider at a time when the Tea Party movement is seeking to challenge the traditional party system.

For Gov. Barbour, how far he goes will likely be determined by how soon people stop focusing on where he’s been.

STILL DIVIDED

One year after President Obama signed the health care reform bill into law, Americans are still divided in their feelings about the overhaul.

A Gallup poll released Monday found that 46 percent of respondents thought it was a “good thing” Congress passed the law, while 44 percent said it was a “bad thing.”

When the law was enacted a year ago, 49 percent of those surveyed said it was a “good thing” and 40 percent responded the measure was a “bad thing.”

The views of the law are shaped in large part by party politics, with 79 percent of Democrats viewing it favorably and 74 percent of Republicans holding an unfavorable view of the policy. A majority of independents — 51 percent — say the law was a bad thing, compared to 37 percent who view it positively.

This is how Gallup’s Editor in Chief Frank Newport frames the poll:

“These reactions reflect a lot of politics and perhaps less reality, given that a full assessment of the real-world effects of the law is not possible at this time, because many of its provisions have not yet taken effect. Still, in politics, perception often becomes reality. And in that regard, President Obama and Democratic leaders who supported the bill currently face a public that is less than overwhelmingly positive about the bill and its promised ability to fix healthcare problems in the U.S.”

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