Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has a high profile when it comes to potential running-mate options for John McCain. Pawlenty endorsed McCain early and stuck with him during hard times midway through 2007, and his center-right governance of blue-state Minnesota shows some real political talent. However, even Minnesotans question his conservative mien, and Robert Novak today reports that the unease extends to some of Pawlenty’s colleagues:
Minnesota’s Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, carefully prepared his plan for controlling greenhouse gas emissions to present it at the annual winter meeting of governors in Washington. That effort coincided with Pawlenty’s fast-rising prospects to become Sen. John McCain’s choice for vice president. But behind closed doors, governors from energy-producing states complained so vigorously that Pawlenty’s proposal was buried.
Pawlenty’s position as chairman of the National Governors Association may prove to be his undoing. While party insiders sing his praises as ideal to be McCain’s running mate, leading conservative Republican governors have been less than pleased with him. Pawlenty has collaborated with the association’s Democratic vice chairman, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, on a fat economic stimulus package as well as the energy proposal.
Hours after Pawlenty’s energy plan was derailed, McCain himself was privately urged by GOP governors not to appear to be anti-coal or anti-oil. The upshot of a busy Saturday at the J.W. Marriott Hotel downtown was that Pawlenty came across as somebody considerably different from what McCain needs to calm conservatives. He left the nation’s capital as a less attractive vice presidential possibility than he was when he arrived.
Pawlenty has a tough job here in Minnesota, and he has chosen his fights carefully — a little too carefully for some of the state’s conservatives. He has survived a Democratic upsurge in 2006, holding onto his office by 20,000 votes. That forced Pawlenty to work more with the political opposition, including a hike in cigarette taxes, supporting a smoking ban in restaurants and bars, public financing for the Twins baseball stadium, and repudiating his earlier no-taxes pledge with the Taxpayers League.
None of this has endeared him to the state’s conservatives, nor has his flirtation with global-warming activists. The latter has extended that unpopularity to other Republican governors, which creates a big problem for John McCain. He will need the strong and public support of the dwindling number of GOP governors if he expects to unify the party. They have strong influence in their own states and can transmit enthusiasm or apathy to the Republican establishments there — and McCain can’t exactly count on grassroots efforts to bolster him among conservatives.
If Novak reads the temperature correctly, McCain can’t afford Pawlenty as a running mate. That would tend to point towards Haley Barbour or Mark Sanford as alternate choices. Either would work, and both would substantially raise his stature among conservatives. Of the two, Sanford would be the wiser choice. He seems more temperamentally suited to McCain — a pork fighter who has an independent, libertarian streak. Sanford could present a winning profile to those who want a strong candidate for 2012 or 2016, and who could appeal to independents and moderates as well as conservatives.