What Pawlenty Can't Do for John McCain

Glance at practically any public analysis of John McCain’s vice presidential options and you’ll find the name of Tim Pawlenty mentioned prominently. The 47-year-old second-term Minnesota governor is, supposedly, at or near the top of McCain’s shortlist.

There is certainly some logic to this. First, Pawlenty is loyal – he sided with McCain early and unflinchingly stuck with him last summer, when everyone else in the world seemed to give up on him – and McCain likes loyalty. Second, Pawlenty would balance McCain’s advanced age and maverick streak with (relative) youthfulness and more appeal to the Republican base.

Plus, he’d offer the chance to pick up Minnesota, a state that the G.O.P. fell just three points short of winning in 2004 and where their convention will be held this summer, and to make inroads with those “white working-class” voters in industrial states who are supposed to be so cool toward Barack Obama. Pawlenty, after all, has been arguing for some time for the G.O.P. to reach out more to Sam’s Clubs and less to country clubs.

The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber wrote recently of the Minnesotan’s “proletarian chic,” nicely capturing a scene in which the governor was given a hero’s welcome in a dimly lit bar populated by women with faded tattoos. Pawlenty, Scheiber wrote, “has genuine appeal among working-class voters, which could come in handy if the election turns into a contest for downscale Rust-Belters.”

But it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind about Pawlenty’s appeal. His two statewide victories in Minnesota have been paper-thin, and both times he’s finished with well under 50 percent of the vote. Minnesota was close in ’04, but polls now show Obama running away with the state. It’s doubtful that Pawlenty’s presence would deliver Minnesota or any other Rust Belt states. And his ability to handle himself in small, folksy settings may be real, but this is not how mass opinion is formed. If Pawlenty were tapped for McCain’s ticket, relatively few voters would ever meet him in person. Instead, they would meet him through television, and on television Pawlenty looks, sounds and acts like a generic, uninspiring and thoroughly forgettable politician.

Just yesterday, in what amounted to an informal audition for McCain’s No. 2 slot, Pawlenty gave a flat performance on ABC’s This Week, where he was paired against Democratic Representative Rahm Emanuel in a dueling-surrogates segment. Pawlenty was faithful to the McCain’s campaign’s message of the week – that Barack Obama, unlike McCain, has never risked the ire of his own party in pursuing his political principles – but there was nothing distinct or memorable about his presentation. His arguments, his tone, his cadence and even his attempts at humor (“The Obama and Hillary Clinton rally shouldn’t have been in Unity, New Hampshire – it should have been in “Political Expediency, New Hampshire!”) were utterly formulaic.

Most voters will probably think about McCain’s vice presidential candidate only three times: when McCain announces his choice, when the VP candidate addresses the Republican convention, and during the VP debate in the fall.

So what value would Pawlenty add to the ticket? His first opportunity for publicity – when McCain announces the pick – would be a wasted venture because no one (outside of Minnesota) knows Pawlenty and there’s nothing dramatic in his background (he’s spent his life in Minnesota politics). He’ll come across as another late-middle-aged politician with talking points.

Nor would Pawlenty be likely to excel in his convention speech or in the fall debate, the other two occasions when he’d be in position to sway mass opinion. As his appearance on ABC on Sunday showed, and as just about all of his appearances elsewhere have shown this year, he is a competent speaker and debater, fully capable of delivering exactly the kind of performance that voters would expect from someone who strikes them as a generic politician. Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrats’ ’88 VP pick, used his debate with Dan Quayle to transform himself from a generic-seeming politician into a player in his own right. There’s been little to suggest that we can suggest any such transformation from Pawlenty, who struggled to stand out on Sunday against Rahm Emanuel.

Otherwise, there really aren’t many chances for VP candidates to connect with the public. Sure, they travel extensively in the fall, but the value of their campaigning is limited. They speak to rooms full of supporters, and their campaign appearances are generally limited to a few quick stump-speech sound bites on local newscasts. Like Bill Clinton in this year’s primary campaign, they tend to be noticed only if and when they trip up.

This would all be fine if McCain were in a position of strength, running ahead of Obama in polls and with the political wind at his back. But he is not. In fact, his position seems to be worsening by the week. Not only has Obama opened a solid and steady lead in national and key state polls, there are also clear signs of Democratic inroads – at the presidential and Congressional levels – in states that have been penciled into the G.O.P. column for decades. Moreover, Obama is making an unprecedented investment in a mobilization drive aimed at increasing participation from his most loyal supporters, young and black voters. If it succeeds, the electoral battleground will radically expand.

Increasingly, the choice of a running mate is shaping up as a vital opportunity for McCain to score headlines and to redirect some excitement – among the media and among voters – from Obama’s campaign to his. Choosing Pawlenty won’t accomplish this. Pawlenty is a safe choice. He’d help keep peace with the G.O.P. base and his generic competence wouldn’t alarm swing voters in the fall, but he’d generate no buzz.

McCain is going uphill in this race. He doesn’t need a running mate who won’t hurt him. He needs one who will help. What Pawlenty Can't Do for John McCain