By Jordan Fabian - 05/20/11 10:24 AM EDT
Tim Pawlenty is seeking to position himself as a Washington outsider, criticizing Congress while not burning bridges in the nation’s capital.
As a first-time candidate on the national level, Pawlenty has taken concrete steps to paint himself as a politician who will shake up the status quo in Washington, splitting with House Republicans on several key issues since wading into the presidential race.
By contrast, former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) took a beating from senior Republicans this week for bashing the House GOP Medicare reform plan as an example of “right-wing social engineering.”
Pawlenty also distanced himself from Ryan’s Medicare plan, saying he would release his own. He urged lawmakers last month to vote against a bipartisan deal brokered by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Democrats, saying it did not cut enough spending.
Both moves annoyed House Republicans, but Pawlenty has largely avoided the type of media frenzy that greeted Gingrich.
The former Minnesota governor, who has not officially launched his campaign yet, is looking to shape his identity early in the race.
His timing is important, especially because others — such as presumed front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and potential candidates like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) — could also claim outsider status as the race develops.
Pawlenty has played up his anti-Washington credentials, hoping that others might have to grapple with their ties to the nation’s capital. For example, Romney ran for Senate in 1994 and for president in 2008, garnering the highest number of GOP lawmaker endorsements during the primary.
Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), Pawlenty’s foremost ally in Congress, said that the former governor is “connecting pretty well” with Republican lawmakers and that they are all on the same page about cutting spending.
“I don’t know that [Pawlenty’s criticisms] disturbed anybody — it’s politics,” he told The Hill. “All the candidates running for president are going to stake out as big of cuts as they can, because they know that’s the right thing to do.
“There’s not a lot of daylight out there,” added Kline, the chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee.
Pawlenty’s supporters on Capitol Hill have indicated that the moves could help the presidential hopeful appeal to anxious GOP primary voters, who believe the field of candidates has been weak.
The 50-year-old ex-governor said Tuesday that rejecting the status quo on major issues wasn’t a roadblock to his 2006 reelection campaign in Minnesota, which happened after he presided over a government shutdown. He also predicted it would not be an obstacle in 2012.
“We are at the point in time in America’s history where we are going to have to look the American people in the eye, tell them the truth and take the hits to get this stuff done,” he said Tuesday on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s radio show.
He added, “Otherwise, we are just wasting our time and we are watching our country sink.”
Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a senior adviser to Pawlenty, said that Republican presidential candidates who want to appeal to the conservative grass roots have to distance themselves from “all the logrolling involved in what we know as the legislative process.”
“If you’re running for president, you’re not running in Washington,” he said during a telephone interview. “You’re running in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada” where voters want to hear about specific proposals. “They don’t want you simply commenting on what’s going on in Washington. They want to know what you want to do.”
Both Weber and former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), another Pawlenty backer, said that Pawlenty’s spats with House Republicans help paint him as a Washington outsider who has fresh ideas.
“He is certainly not Washington; he thinks through a different lens,” Coleman said.
“He really is the real deal, and he’s authentic,” Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), a friend of Pawlenty’s, said.
Even though Republicans now control the House, running against Congress could prove beneficial for GOP presidential candidates in 2012.
Congress remains unpopular: A May Gallup poll showed Congress with a lower-than-average approval rating of just 24 percent, and Boehner’s approval rating slipped eight points in an April USA Today/Gallup poll to 34 percent.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kan.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) were the last two Republican presidential nominees to hail from Congress, and both lost their contests against Democrats. McCain was beaten by President Obama, who had only served two years in the Senate before announcing his campaign.
The benefits of breaking with Congress can only come if a candidate plays his cards right, political analysts caution.
Seriously angering members of Congress, like Gingrich did, can make it harder for presidential contenders to secure endorsements from lawmakers, who have close ties to political activists back home.
Pawlenty will visit Washington in about two weeks, and Kline said he and Paulsen are setting up meetings between the presidential contender and small groups of House Republicans.
Though Pawlenty took his lumps from the House GOP (a senior aide last month accused him of “rattling off sound bites to appease the base”), Weber said he has done a good job of not to crossing the line and seriously offending House Republicans.
“They want some advance notice,” Weber added. They don’t want to “be constantly reading about it on the blogs on the Internet, or seeing it on cable news” before they know about it.
Pawlenty has also mixed his criticism of House Republicans with praise. Earlier this month, he commended Boehner for demanding trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for lifting the nation’s debt ceiling.
In addition to Gingrich and Romney, who is releasing his own Medicare plan, Weber pointed out that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) — Pawlenty’s fellow Minnesotan, who is weighing a presidential bid — voted against leadership on the final 2011 budget deal.
“You can’t set a higher standard for presidential candidates than your own members,” he said.
—Russell Berman contributed.