Mild-mannered perhaps to a fault, Tim Pawlenty hasn’t exactly been observers’ pick for presidential candidate most likely to capture the imagination of the rowdy Tea Party movement.
Yet the Minnesota governor is giving it his all, launching an aggressive effort to court the conservative grassroots in early primary states and around the country with appearances at Tea Party events, red meat rhetoric, and outreach in the crucial caucus state of Iowa.
On Saturday, Pawlenty was the keynote speaker at the Tea Party Patriots Summit in Arizona, delivering a rousing love letter to the activists in attendance, whom he labeled “modern day Paul Reveres.”
“The message of the Tea Party, as I see it, is simple,” he said in his speech. “God made us to be free, and the Founding Fathers made the Constitution to keep us free. And just about every problem our country faces today comes from a rejection of one of those two principles.”
The governor followed up his speech with a video tribute to the movement every bit as epic and over-the-top as previous productions from his FreedomFirst PAC, whose films have drawn frequent comparisons to Jerry Bruckheimer’s work.
“Historical change in this country usually starts with a group that’s somewhat fresh, somewhat new — that starts with a little bit of outsider status but then over time they become the driving force for change,” Pawlenty says in the video, which intersperses his words with a swelling musical score and clips of conservative rallies. “I think the Tea Party is a welcome, helpful, energetic, forward-leaning organization.”
Ryan Rhodes, state coordinator for the Iowa Tea Party Patriots and a political consultant, tells TPM that Pawlenty has matched his words with an impressive ground game in Iowa focused on winning over the grassroots. Rhodes said that Ben Foster, Pawlenty’s full-time aide in Iowa, has been meeting with local groups throughout the state and turned heads with help on a pair of key state legislature races in November featuring conservative candidates.
“I think that on the ground he’s doing work that no one else is doing,” Rhodes said. “His PAC has gone all around to a lot of local groups and meetings and started just picking folks and talking about what they’re seeing and asking what they could do to help.”
Still, the field is wide open: “People are not decided,” Rhodes added. “I think literally almost everybody watching this race is open to being won over, but they’re going to have to see whether you’re walking the walk, talking the talk, and laying early markers.”
While Pawlenty may not seem the most obvious candidate to garner Tea Party support, distinguishing himself from Mitt Romney, who is generally considered the establishment candidate and holds a similar resume as a blue state governor, is key to his presidential hopes. Several of the more buzzworthy potential candidates with grassroots followings, most notably Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, have yet to indicate if they’ll be in the running, leaving an opening if they sit out for Pawlenty to collect protest votes against the more mainstream Romney.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.