DES MOINES, Iowa -- As Congress begins voting on health care reform, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty urged Republican activists on Saturday to use public anger over the issue as the linchpin of their battle to return to power.
Pawlenty singled out President Barack Obama at a big Republican fundraiser at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, his first visit to the state since the 2008 elections.
"On the night that he won the Iowa caucuses, he promised to bring Republicans and Democrats together to pass a health care bill, and now he's decided to ram it down our throats," Pawlenty said in remarks given to The Associated Press shortly before his speech to more than 700 activists at the Republican Party of Iowa fundraiser.
Many see Pawlenty as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. If he decides to seek the nomination he likely will return to Iowa frequently, as his status as a neighboring governor could help his prospects in the state's leadoff caucuses.
"In Minnesota we've slowed down health care costs and improved quality by empowering consumers," said Pawlenty, a two-term governor who decided not to seek re-election. "That's the direction America should go."
By referring to Minnesota's experience with health care, Pawlenty pointed to what could be a strong selling point if he seeks the GOP nomination -- that he's a conservative who has found a way to win in a reliably Democratic state.
Iowa's Republican politics are heavily shaped by social and religious conservatives, and in describing the health care measure Pawlenty said "sadly it allows for taxpayer funding of abortions."
But much of his speech was focused on the cost of efforts to expand health care to most Americans.
"It's hard to overstate how bad the bill is," said Pawlenty. "It raises health care costs, increases taxes and adds to the deficit."
Besides being expensive, Pawlenty claimed the measure pushed by Democrats was in opposition to the country's basic principles.
"It is one of the most anti-freedom bills in America's history," said Pawlenty. "It's anti-freedom because it raises taxes. It's anti-freedom because it explodes bureaucracy and it's anti-freedom because it puts government in charge of health care decisions."
Pawlenty mocked the effort to expand the government's role in health care, arguing it couldn't even deliver flu vaccines on time.
Hours before Pawlenty spoke, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Michael Kiernan issued a statement dismissing the Minnesota governor.
"Pawlenty's top advisers are the same Bush/McCain/Swiftboat characters voters have already rejected," said Kiernan.