Pawlenty’s Ace

by Robert Costa

Nick Ayers, a 28-year-old GOP wunderkind who cut his teeth as director of the Republican Governors Association, has been tapped to run Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign.

The Georgia-born Ayers has close ties to southern-fried conservatives, most notably Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, whom he aided at the RGA. As the next cycle kicks into gear, however, Ayers is not setting up shop in Yazoo City. He instead finds himself in chilly Minneapolis, as the political maestro for a former blue-state governor who is lagging in the polls.

“[Pawlenty] is certainly the underdog, because he has not sought the presidency before, and he has not been preparing for this his entire life,” Ayers says via phone, as he wraps up his first day in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. “To defeat President Obama, we are going to have to unify the party, and I know that he will be able to do that. Polls — eight months, ten months, a year out — they don’t concern me at all.

“My view on Governor Pawlenty is that he is like a good investment or a good start-up company,” he says. “The time to invest is when the price is low. My theory was, invest low, win high. I don’t believe that there is a better investment in Republican politics right now.”

The Hawkeye State is a top focus for his candidate. After logging countless trips to Des Moines, “I think we’ll be rewarded by doing very well in Iowa,” he predicts. “I think it’s important not just for our campaign, but for every campaign, Governor Romney included. We hope everyone competes there, and like anyone, feel like we have to do well there.”

Ayers developed a close relationship with Pawlenty over the past year. Many observers expected him to align behind Barbour’s potential run, but Ayers says he turned his attention to the 2012 contenders only recently, and that he was open-minded when evaluating the field. As the operative who led the RGA as it ladled out more than $100 million to gubernatorial candidates in 2010, he was, reportedly, in high demand, and could take his time mulling his next move.

Though Pawlenty’s courting increased this spring, Ayers tells me that he developed his admiration for the Minnesotan five years ago, during the Democratic sweep.

“I spent the first five years of my professional career as a senior adviser to governor Sonny Perdue in Georgia, and as the campaign manager for his 2006 reelection campaign,” Ayers recalls. “When you’re in the business, you tune in to look at how other principals are performing. Governor Pawlenty always stood out to me as a dynamic, bold, visionary conservative in a tough part of the country. My respect for him dramatically grew in 2006, when he weathered that storm.”

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In 2007, Ayers headed to Washington to direct the RGA, and his relationship with Pawlenty blossomed. “It was a mission of great fortune that when I took over the RGA, building relationships with all of the governors, one of my first trips to meet with a governor one-on-one, outside of our chairman, was to visit Governor Pawlenty,” he says. “I came to Minnesota, met with him at his residence, and we spent a third of the time talking about politics and the RGA. But where we really hit it off was when we began talking about our families, about our love for dogs; he was a big dog person and my wife and I have a great little dog.”

After the 2010 midterms, Pawlenty told Ayers that he was strongly leaning toward a White House run, and that he wanted him to play a “major role.” Over the past five months, they met at numerous times, continuing to talk. In the past month, he settled on putting his chips on T-Paw, even though Barbour, his most notable ally, was busy traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I have tremendous respect for Governor Barbour,” Ayers says. Choosing “among friends, on a personal level,” he adds, was stressful. “When I began making a decision about who was the best candidate — to propose bold, conservative solutions and defeat President Obama — it was a clear choice for me. But for personal reasons, obviously, it was difficult.”

As Ayers takes his slot at the top, Pawlenty’s team, for now, will remain intact, with strategist Phil Musser continuing to guide the governor at a senior level. Former congressman Vin Weber, political strategist Sara Taylor, and spokesman Alex Conant, among others, remain as top advisers.