Pawlenty courts South Florida voters

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will bring his fledgling presidential campaign to South Florida on Tuesday, angling for a spot in a Republican field that still has some GOP’ers yearning for more flash.

Pawlenty, who will hold a Facebook Town Hall and a news conference at the Biltmore, is seen as the early favorite to win Iowa’s 2012 Republican caucus, traditionally the first true test of a White House aspirant’s strength.

But as he outlined his views in a Des Moines speech Monday to kick off his campaign, Pawlenty faced a formidable question: while his down-home, low-key, Midwestern get-it-done style is appealing to Iowans, will it play well anywhere else?

“People are really looking for an aggressive candidate, and Pawlenty sometimes shies away from being really aggressive,” said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief and founder of the Iowa web site, who attended Monday’s event. “He’s going to have to find the right tone.”

Pawlenty has courted state legislators in Tallahassee and has signed Miami’s Ann Herberger, a veteran Bush family fundraiser, who also worked for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-based political consultant, said it remains to be seen whether Pawlenty “can get people excited and out of their chairs.

“It’s not unique to him,” said Curbelo, who has yet to endorse. “I think a lot of Republicans are wondering if we can win in 2012 and are looking for someone to excite them and make them believe.”

Herberger, who is helping Pawlenty in Florida and serving as a senior financial advisor nationally, called him as “genuine as they come. Our challenge is getting him in front of voters and getting him known.”

Herberger notes she was working with now Sen. Rubio “when he was in the 3 percent club” — trailing far behind former Gov. Charlie Crist, whom he defeated in November.

“If there’s one thing that race taught us, it was never take anything for granted,” she said. “This race is changing month to month, sometimes daily. Nothing is for certain.”

Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., suggested the party is faced with “a lot of second choices.”

Some GOP’ers declined to run, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who announced his decision Sunday. Also sitting it out are 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and celebrity businessman Donald Trump.

Analysts believe that GOP voters will fall into two broad blocs — social conservatives who regard moral issues as paramount, and more traditional Republicans who want smaller government, falling national debt and free-market economics.

Pawlenty tried Monday to appeal to both blocs in hard-hitting speech in Des Moines. He said that when he visits Coral Gables on Tuesday, he’ll tell “both young people and seniors the truth that our entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path and that inaction is no longer an option.”

He’s sympathetic to subjecting Social Security to “means-testing,” meaning wealthier seniors may not get full benefits, and urged that Medicare be changed to reward efficient doctors and consumers.

One Florida Republican strategist said it remains to be seen whether Republicans can successfully tackle entitlement reform in Florida.

“By the time the Democrats are done pounding away on the ‘Republicans are going to take away your Medicare,’ I’m not sure whether you’ll be able to convince the swing seniors in this state of anything else,” said Republican strategist David “DJ” Johnson, who isn’t committed to a candidate. “It’s not untouchable, but it’s all going to depend on the rollout. It might sound good when you have a bunch of younger people around the table, it’s the distant horizon for them. But these folks down here get the checks.”

With Huckabee out, the social conservatives are up for grabs. They’re being wooed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and businessman Herman Cain. None is considered a front-runner.

The mainstream GOP crowd also has no clear front-runner. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads most polls, but usually with less than 20 percent, and that’s often buoyed by support from independents who won’t count in many GOP primaries. He continues to be dogged by his parentage of the Massachusetts health care law cited as a model for the national 2010 health care overhaul that most Republicans abhor.

Pawlenty’s other major challenger so far, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has stumbled badly after suggesting that the House of Representatives’ GOP plan to revamp Medicare, popular with Republicans, was “right-wing social engineering."

Still, Gingrich can’t be ruled out, said Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. Gingrich stopped last week in Cedar Rapids, where Hagle watched him draw a large crowd and found “he had a lot of goodwill.”

Romney, who finished a distant second there in 2008 after an energetic effort, plans to visit the state Friday — his first appearance in Iowa this year — and seems to be making only a token effort there. He’s banking on New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first primary, to push him to the lead.

Also still in the mix is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose appeal resembles Romney’s, and who’s putting his campaign headquarters in Florida, a signal that his strategy may be to wait until the competition reaches the big states to make his play.

Pawlenty also stressed his resume on Monday, one that analysts say has unusual appeal to Iowans. He recalled that his mother passed away when he was 16 and “awhile later, my dad lost his job for a time.” He worked at a grocery store for about seven years, and “was proud to earn some money to help pay for school costs and make ends meet.” As Minnesota’s governor, elected in 2002 and 2006, he said he led “a liberal state in a conservative direction.”

Perhaps just as important, Pawlenty conveys a low-key appeal.

Friday he visited Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin, a city of 1,900 in eastern Iowa. He arrived early, sat in the audience listening to others, gave a speech in the school cafeteria, then stayed to eat ice cream and cake.

“He was willing to hang around and talk after a long day. That’s the kind of thing Iowans appreciate,” said Hagle.

But that style is hard to sell in big states, another reason why analysts say the race remains wide open. As Michael Needham, chief executive officer of the conservative Heritage Action for America, put it, “It’s a fluid field.”

Ana Navarro, a Miami Republican strategist who campaigned for John McCain in 2008 but has yet to endorse, noted that Pawlenty may have trouble attracting much attention in Miami on Tuesday — when voters in Miami-Dade head to the polls to elect a successor to Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted in a recall election.

She suggested that although Pawlenty is “not a star, that doesn’t mean he’s not a solid candidate with a lot of good qualities.”

She added that most Republicans are beginning to “come to terms with the fact that someone like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie is not going to come soaring through the sky, wearing a cape. A lot of people have been holding out hope that the perfect candidate would emerge, but that’s looking less likely and we’ve got to get to the business of supporting those who do enter the fray.”

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