The smart money among Washington political insiders is being stacked high in front of two nominees for the GOP presidential nomination: Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. And at the moment the bets on Pawlenty are coming fast.
On his Comedy Central show, Jon Stewart recently described Mitt Romney as the “guy who fired everybody’s dad.” When the GOP contest comes down to a choice between these two former Republican blue state governors, Pawlenty will claim to represent the guy on the other side of that exchange – the working class voter who was fired by the Romney-type corporate raider.
It may work.
Pawlenty fits the bill as the fresh face in the race for establishment Republicans looking for as a nominee. He is a capable, steady and experienced politician who allows the general election to become all about President Obama and whatever anger, discontent, disappointment voters may feel about the incumbent.
But first Pawlenty has to win over social conservatives, Tea Party activists, and increase his name recognition among grassroots Republicans to have any chance of taking the nomination from Romney.
“T-Paw,” as his supporters call him, has a compelling personal story that he is sharing with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. His appeal to white, working class, middle-income Republicans is based on a simple pitch: I am one of you.
After his mother passed away when he was a teenager, his father worked very hard as a meat packer and then a truck driver to support Pawlenty and his four brothers and sisters. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree. Of all the GOP candidates, Pawlenty has lived a life that is closest to the experience of the average American family -- to the extent there is such a thing.
As Ron Brownstein recently noted in the National Journal, the white working class voting bloc is currently pessimistic and frightened about the future. There is every indication that their anxiety will influence their voting behavior. Overall, 55 percent of whites voted for Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 election. But President Obama won the majority of voters earning less than $50,000 a year.
Recent polls show white working class voters fear they are getting left behind – especially the white men who worked in construction or manufacturing -- in the nation’s post-recession economic transformation and no one in government or big business gives a damn.
As early as 2008 when he was on John McCain’s short list for Vice President, Pawlenty was arguing that Republicans needed to be “the party of Sam’s Club not just the country club”
While Romney’s consistency problems are well known – flip flopping on abortion, gay marriage, auto bailouts, employer mandates in health care and an a whole host of other issues – Pawlenty may be vulnerable to a similar line of attack from Democrats.
The affable 50-year-old Minnesotan supported a version of cap-and-trade – just like President Obama - to control pollution before changing his position to fit with Republican opposition. But his problems also extend to the credibility of his claim to be a champion of the working class.
Pawlenty proudly declares that he grew up in a union household. Yet, Pawlenty enthusiastically supported the efforts of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to strip public sector union workers of their collective bargaining rights earlier this year. Moreover, as Governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty supported legislation that would have limited these same basic rights for the North Star State’s public union workers.
Like the rest of his party, Pawlenty railed against President Obama’s stimulus package that was comprised mostly of tax cuts for middle class families – the very people he purports to be the champion of. He vehemently opposed Obama’s health care reform legislation that allows those same families to keep their children on their family’s insurance plan until they are 26 years old or can find a job.
Pawlenty also decried Obama’s rescue of the American auto industry as a “bailout” even though it saved the industry and created thousands of blue-collar jobs.
By all accounts, Pawlenty’s image as a likeable and decent public servant is well deserved. However, once working class voters start to give him serious consideration they may conclude his claim to represent them is just another reason to feel that no one is really looking out for them. Pawlenty’s goal is to give them every reason to reach a different conclusion.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."