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Pawlenty Aims to Push GOP Beyond CEO Stereotype

Fresh from an overseas trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty weighed in on many of the policy and political issues of the moment at a breakfast meeting with reporters Monday in Washington, D.C., but it may have been his final comments about the candidate qualities that he believes should be at a premium in the GOP’s offering to voters in 2012.

“What do people think when they think about Republicans? What’s the stereotype?” asked the likely 2012 presidential hopeful at the event, which was sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

“We’re all CEOs or sons or daughters of CEOs. We play polo on the weekends. We never got our fingernails dirty. We drink Chablis and eat brie,” Pawlenty said in answering his rhetorical question. “Well, that’s not my story and it’s not the story for the tea party and it’s not the story for most Republicans,” he added before sketching out his biography of being the youngest of five children who grew up in a meatpacking town and the only one to graduate from college, his truck driver father and the death of his mother when he was 16 years old.

Watch some of his remarks:

It is the well-rehearsed script of any Republican thinking of heading off to Iowa and New Hampshire to take the presidential plunge to say that they are only focused on 2010 and will consider options for 2012 after the November midterm elections. And Pawlenty was sure to include the same perfunctory language in response to a direct question about his plans.

But it was not lost on any reporters in the room that Mitt Romney, the other Republican working as hard — if not harder — as Pawlenty at creating a team, traveling the country and putting together the building blocks of a possible presidential campaign, just happened to be both a CEO and the son of a CEO.

By no means was there any direct swipe at former Massachusetts Governor Romney. That will be saved for the debate stage next year. But make no mistake about the fact that Pawlenty is beginning to attempt to distinguish himself from one of his likely top-tier rivals in these early stages of what has become known as the invisible primary.

“When you walk into a VFW and talk to somebody wearing a Carhartt jacket, drinking a Miller High Life beer, you can explain to them your seven point plan for health care reform, but what they mostly want to know is: do your values generally line up with theirs, does your life story generally line up with theirs, do you have some life experiences that would indicate that you understand their circumstances, their challenge, and their worries and they connect to you on a heart and a gut level,” Pawlenty said in describing the type of voter he believes swung to President Obama in 2008 and will be up for grabs for Republicans in 2010 and 2012.

“So when they say ‘well you don’t understand me, you’re a country club elitist,’ it helps to have a messenger that has walked in their shoes a bit because then you can at least open the door to a discussion and get you some credibility,” he said. There was no need to add that he clearly seems himself as just such a messenger.

The governor went on to say that there would be a number of candidates on the Republican stage next year and on the full range of issues (taxes, Afghanistan, health care) there will be general agreement as to the content of the message. “The real question’s going to be as to tone and face and credibility who is best situated to open the door to people who are not yet Republicans,” he added.

Romney was not the only potential Republican rival with whom Pawlenty sought to distinguish himself. In response to a question about Sarah Palin’s possible candidacy, Pawlenty made clear that she has a different calculus and calendar when considering a presidential campaign than he does.

“Governor Palin, given her status,” Pawlenty said, “she can afford to wait a lot longer than most other candidates because she has an ability level of familiarity, awareness and support. . . she can probably wait a lot longer.”

On Afghanistan, Pawlenty said the classified documents made public by WikiLeaks did not present anything all that new in terms of content to his eyes. He said much of what the documents present has been discussed as known fact in foreign policy and intelligence circles for some time.

He made his opposition to President Obama’s deadline to begin transitioning U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan in July 2011 quite clear. Pawlenty praised the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as the head of the military effort there and said the effort is “going to require troops than we have there currently.” Asked if that meant increasing the troop size beyond President Obama’s surge, Pawlenty did not rule it out.

“I don’t presuppose that we need more than that, but we might,” he said.

Pawlenty also teed off on the Obama administration’s lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law that is set to go into effect Thursday.

“It has been wildly, irresponsibly mischaracterized by people quoted in the press including the president of the United States,” Pawlenty said. “To characterize it as out of bounds is irresponsible.”

The Minnesotan placed his discomfort with TARP and his opposition to the stimulus bill on display too. And, as he does quite often, Gov. Pawlenty offered his “electability” calling card by reminding reporters that he is a conservative Republican elected in a state that has produced such Democratic stalwarts as Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone, Hubert Humphrey and Al Franken.

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