Pawlenty looks to take lead in boosting Wisconsin governor

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) sought Thursday to take the lead among possible GOP presidential candidates in bolstering Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in his state's labor dispute.

Pawlenty released a video on Thursday boosting Walker and directing viewers to a petition in support of Walker, who's locked in a major battle with state Democrats over a labor reform bill eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees.

"The gig is up [sic] for public employee groups who demand better benefits than the taxpayers who are paying the bill," the petition says. "I'm confident Governor Walker's reforms will succeed in Wisconsin. Stand strong, Scott — average taxpayers everywhere are rooting for you."

For Pawlenty, the gambit is simple: As a former union member who's been more willing to speak out on labor matters in the past, he could own the issue and score points with Republican primary voters, who might be inclined to support Walker.

Other possible candidates' relative lack of action on the issue provides an opening for the Minnesotan. Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has really been vocal in supporting Walker. Other possible candidates, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), have made token statements or gestures of support. Some candidates, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), have largely ducked commenting on the issue so far (Romney's political action committee did support Walker's election).

Pawlenty's petition isn't the most brash show of support in the world — it mirrors the Republican Governors Association's "Stand With Scott" website — but it signals an effort to put his mark on the labor dispute.

A former union member while working at a grocery store, Pawlenty has shown a willingness to speak out on labor issues. He wrote an op-ed critical of public employee unions in December, foreshadowing to a degree the labor battles of 2011 in Wisconsin and other states.

"If we're going to stop the government unions' silent coup, conservative reformers around the country must fight this challenge head on," he wrote.

Pawlenty also took the unlikely step of lamenting the loss of a Democrat, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, in a primary last year. Fenty and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, had clashed with teachers unions in D.C. over issues like merit pay and other reforms opposed by organized labor.

"Mayor Fenty lost after the teachers unions led a campaign against him and Michelle Rhee," Pawlenty said at the time. "Fenty's loss is further evidence that despite all their rhetoric about 'the children,' what the teachers unions really care about is getting more money for jobs they can't lose at schools that produce students who are not prepared to compete."