Tim Pawlenty on Monday officially jumped into the presidential race, telling a crowd in Iowa that the country needs a leader who is willing to “look you in the face and tell you the truth.”
Speaking to a town-hall-style gathering at the foot of the state capitol in Des Moines, the former Minnesota governor made the politically risky move of calling for federal ethanol subsidies to be gradually phased out. Pawlenty said all energy subsidies, including ethanol, need to be cut back or eliminated to return the U.S. to a sound fiscal path.
“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,” he said. “We need to do it gradually. We need to do it fairly. But we need to do it.”
Pawlenty’s statements on ethanol did not trigger applause.
Ethanol subsidies are a political sacred cow in Iowa, and few presidential candidates have found success there after opposing them.
The rise of the Tea Party and its focus on fiscal issues has given candidates more political cover to criticize ethanol subsidies in Iowa this election cycle.
Pawlenty earned kudos from conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called the move “politically gutsy” during an interview with the 50-year-old candidate Monday.
Democrats immediately tried to turn it into a political disadvantage for Pawlenty, painting him as a flip-flopper and political opportunist.
“He holds his finger up in the wind and feels which way the political wind is blowing,” Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party President Ken Martin told reporters. “Tim Pawlenty has been nothing more than a political chameleon, and today’s announcement proves that.”
The move is indeed a reversal for Pawlenty, who as governor increased his state’s ethanol mandate and defended the subsidies from sweeping changes as recently as last month.
Pawlenty, however, claimed in his speech that he reduced ethanol subsidies when Minnesota faced a budget crisis.
Ethanol wasn’t the only area where Pawlenty made waves.
He voiced support for means-testing of Social Security cost-of-living adjustments just one day before he is scheduled to visit Florida, a key swing state with a large population of senior citizens, and said he won’t allow more bank bailouts ahead of a visit to New York City, the country’s financial capital.
The ex-governor said that Republicans who want to defeat President Obama in 2012 will not succeed in doing so by being timid.
“Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street,” Pawlenty said. “But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead.”
Pawlenty appears to be betting that bold policy positions could help him stand out among the field of GOP presidential contenders, namely Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who is viewed as the front-runner.
Pawlenty is looking to cast himself as a serious alternative to Romney, but faces several obstacles, including low name recognition and sagging poll numbers.
According to a May Gallup poll, Pawlenty’s 48 percent name recognition among Republicans is 35 points lower than Romney’s and half that of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who could dramatically alter the race if she jumps in.
Pawlenty said Monday that he prefers to build support by talking about ideas, not hurling partisan barbs.
“I’m not running for entertainer in chief. These are serious times and they need serious people with serious solutions,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show. “So if you’re looking for the loudest comedian in the race, vote for somebody else. But I’ll bring the solutions forward that will actually fix the country.”
Still, Pawlenty’s strategy poses major risks in Iowa, the first caucus state where he is looking to make a splash.
He has aggressively courted voters and GOP activists in Iowa, hoping that a strong showing there will jump-start his candidacy and give him a chance of winning other early primaries.
“I think success breeds success,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a senior adviser to Pawlenty.
Previous candidates who have voiced opposition to ethanol subsidies have not fared well in the Hawkeye State. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of ethanol, finished fourth in the 2008 Iowa caucus before rebounding to win the nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who supports ethanol subsidies, won the 2008 Iowa caucus.
Veteran Iowa Republican strategist Bob Haus said Pawlenty made a “bold move” with his announcement Monday.
Asked if Iowa voters and activists will withhold support for Pawlenty over his statements on ethanol, Haus responded, “I don’t think it’s that serious. I think it’s one of those things where it could give some people some pause.
“It may have surprised some people, but it’s not a dealbreaker,” Haus said.
Haus, however, explained the importance of the ethanol industry to Iowa’s economy and said it is a key element in developing alternative fuels and breaking the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
-- This story was published at 12:50 p.m. and updated 8:24 p.m.