Don’t confuse nice with weak: Pawlenty

This is the second in a series of profiles on Republicans who might run for president in 2012.

Tim Pawlenty is confronting two major obstacles in his all-but-certain presidential bid: He’s too nice and too vanilla.

Over the past several weeks, the former Minnesota governor has sought to counter critics by asserting that former President Ronald Reagan was civil but tough.

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Pawlenty also released a movie-trailer-like Web ad showing iconic figures in U.S. history, a dozen shots of the American flag and snippets of his speeches set to the backdrop of a dramatic musical score.

The Web ad has done something that Pawlenty has failed to do: create a lot of buzz.

The 50-year-old St. Paul native launched his book tour in Washington earlier this month, evoking Reagan repeatedly and making the case that a genial personality is an asset. 

“He’s my role model in that regard,” Pawlenty told The Hill. “We shouldn’t confuse being nice with being weak.”

Pawlenty, who has appeared regularly on Fox News this month, has noted that Reagan rarely was seen being angry or demeaning. Reagan, Pawlenty said during a media event this month at the National Press club, was a “hopeful, optimistic, can-do, civil, thoughtful person.”

As for standing out among the expected field of Republican hopefuls, Pawlenty says he’s not staring down a crowd of internationally known superstars.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to keep up with [Sarah] Palin on the entertainment meter,” he said. “But as for the rest of them — they’re not exactly a bunch of Lady Gagas.”

It’s become the earliest and most pressing challenge for Pawlenty — the former two-term Minnesota governor who compiled a solid record of fiscal conservatism in the land of McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.

Although Pawlenty comes without many of the doubts social conservatives have about Mitt Romney, or those fiscal conservatives have about Mike Huckabee, or even those electability-minded conservatives have about Sarah Palin, he still struggles to attract anywhere near the amount of attention they do.

Then there’s fellow Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, whose mere presence in the 2012 conversation costs Pawlenty even more of the spotlight.

Still, even if Pawlenty’s presidential maneuverings don’t make as much noise in the press as those of other possible contenders, the former governor has invested considerable time and energy in building political organizations in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s also been on the ground in both states more than Palin, Huckabee or former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

As President Obama’s political fortunes appear to be on the upswing, Pawlenty can also boast a convincing electability argument, having won two terms as governor in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972.

The industrial Midwest, however, isn’t likely to turn red as easily as it did this past November. It’s potentially good news for the consummate nice guy, who has a proven appeal to independents in a traditionally tough region of the country for Republican presidential nominees.

Watching Pawlenty mix with VIPs before his Press Club speech, it’s easy to see where the nice guy rap comes from. Pawlenty isn’t exactly working the room in the traditional political sense, foisting stump-speech lines on anyone who will listen. He appears content to let the action come to him as nearby photographers grumble about his lack of animation. Pausing to take a photo with a man who remarks on the former governor’s considerable height, Pawlenty offers to flex his knees so as not to look quite as imposing in the photo. Former Reagan speechwriter Clark Judge was in the audience listening intently to the former governor’s D.C. message.

Overall, a “good speech,” said Judge, but added that Pawlenty’s no Ronald Reagan.

“His weakness is that he projects affability, but not strength,” Judge said. “It isn’t that he projects weakness, but you don’t sense that there’s a solid, immovable block there.”

That, said Judge, was Reagan — hopeful, civil and often nice — but never movable.

“[Pawlenty’s] right, nice doesn’t mean you’re not strong,” Judge said. “But it doesn’t mean he’s proved his own strength yet, either.”

Two members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation have been helping make the case for the former governor among Republican powerbrokers in Washington — Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen.

“I’m encouraging him to get out there now and make his case,” said Kline, who for more than a year has been encouraging Pawlenty to run. “The sooner, the better.”

Both Kline and Paulsen are pitching the electability argument for Pawlenty, pointing to the Midwest as a critical region of the country for the GOP in 2012. “As much as the last election was about change, I think the next one is going to be all about competency,” said Paulsen. “He’s also done well in a traditionally liberal state. That should count for something among conservative Democrats and independents.”

Kline says Pawlenty’s track record as governor will impress voters: “He was able to use that veto pen and his powers of persuasion to get the government running on an even keel without raising taxes.”