Politics & Policy

Tim Pawlenty: Romney’s Traveling Salesman

Getting to know the life and times of a Romney surrogate.

Tim Pawlenty calls me from the Minneapolis airport. All afternoon, he’s been living in travel hell. His flight to New Hampshire was cancelled due to thunderstorms over the Twin Cities, so after parking his car, he scrambled to book a new ticket. The security line was a nightmare. Now he’s at his gate, but as heavy rain pelts the tarmac, the boarding time blinking above the waiting area is a taunt, not a promise.

It’s just another day in the life of Mitt Romney’s workhorse.

“I get the drill,” Pawlenty says, as he sits in the terminal. “[Romney] doesn’t need people lurking. He needs people working, moving the needle for the campaign. My best value is to show up and be an advocate for him in areas where he can’t be.”

It’s Thursday and Pawlenty is on his way to join the presumptive Republican nominee on a bus tour. He regularly appears with Romney on the trail, but this joint stump stop is not a typical work day. It’s the little stuff —  conference calls with reporters, private fundraising receptions, early-morning appearances on MSNBC and Fox News — that fills his schedule.

A year ago, Pawlenty was making weekly trips to the Granite State as a top presidential contender — a former Minnesota governor with a legitimate shot at the nomination. But last August, that dream faded in the Iowa cornfields, thanks to a distant third-place finish in the Ames straw poll. These days, his job makes him more reminiscent of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air – a middle-aged frequent flier — than a candidate for national office. His entourage is gone. The hovering staffers have moved on, as have the Minnesota state troopers.

It’s just Tim and his carry-on suitcase. And he’s fine with that.

Around Romney’s Boston headquarters, Pawlenty’s willingness to go anywhere — attending any event, however tedious — has won him the trust and admiration of Romney loyalists. Romney, for his part, appreciates Pawlenty’s disciplined, low-key style. He has encouraged his aides to use Pawlenty, employing him as a senior surrogate and, behind the scenes, as a political lieutenant. In the terms of Pawlenty’s favorite sport — hockey — he’s a defenseman. He rarely touches the puck, but when it comes his way, he’s a savvy shot-blocker.

“Pawlenty basically does whatever the campaign requests, no questions asked. That’s pretty rare in presidential politics, especially among politicians of his standing,” says one Romney adviser. A member of Romney’s inner circle echoes that sentiment: “Out of all of Romney’s primary competitors, he has emerged — and there’s really no argument — as the best supporter. He’s tireless.”

Pawlenty’s status as a valued Romney hand doesn’t surprise longtime GOP observers, most of whom remember his persistent surrogate work for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. But his own rationale is more of an open question. Some politicos suspect that he’s angling for the vice-presidential slot or a cabinet post, or, perhaps, simply biding time until he runs for Senate against Democrat Al Franken in 2014. Others also see his hustle as a way of keeping up appearances for another presidential run, even after his disappointing showing this time around.

Of course, Pawlenty’s friends and former staffers assure me that there is no Machiavellian motive behind his eager barnstorming. He’s out of office, they say, but at 51 years old, it should not be a surprise that he still has the political bug. Sure, they add, he’s serving on a slew of corporate boards, most of them in Minnesota, but money doesn’t drive him. He still lives in the same house in Eagan, Minn., and he still owns the same Ford Escape. “This is a guy who wants to be in the game, working hard to stay in the game,” explains one former Pawlenty aide.

Pawlenty has been actively crisscrossing the country for Romney since his campaign’s disappointing end — and he often does so under the radar. Last month, he trekked to the Oklahoma GOP convention to shake hands with supporters. A couple of weeks ago, he was in North Carolina, talking up Romney at a Republican luncheon. Other stops have included Tennessee, Michigan, and Iowa. He’s done events by himself, and with fellow Romney surrogates, such as John Bolton. When he’s home, he joins the talk-radio circuit from his living room.

The Romney campaign likes that Pawlenty does more than just show up and smile. If Pawlenty is at a state convention where Ron Paul supporters are bashing Romney, he’ll jump in and defend the nominee. Romney advisers noticed Pawlenty’s mix of grittiness and composure early on in the primary, when he was throwing political punches at their boss without raising his voice. Once he endorsed Romney, the decision to put that skill to work was a no-brainer: Within a couple of months, he was in the center of the primary’s post-debate spin rooms, calmly sparring with bloggers, print scribes, and TV pundits.

Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser, says Pawlenty fits the Romney campaign’s brand, which values effectiveness, not flashiness. “Tim’s comfortable with everybody,” he says. “He’s also always on message. He can go on TV and handle the tough questions without making mistakes. That’s the ideal for a presidential campaign. You need guys you can count on. There are many surrogates out there, but few error-free surrogates.”

Pawlenty chuckles when I mention his reputation within the Romney campaign as Mr. On-Message. He doesn’t mind the tag, he says, and he’s pleased that he hasn’t messed up his talking points. But he knows that the favored-surrogate status can be fleeting. “If you talk long enough, eventually you’re going to say something stupid,” he laughs. “But I’ve avoided that.”

When Pawlenty, deep in debt, quit the primary last August, his relationship with Romney was cool, maybe even frosty. Four years ago, both men were surrogates for McCain, giving them a professional relationship, but they weren’t friends in any real sense. During the primary, they had been cordial backstage at debates, but they were competing, so their conversations were cagey.

Nevertheless, after Pawlenty dropped out in mid-August, Romney soon called and invited him and his wife, Mary, to spend a weekend at the Romney family’s sprawling home on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Pawlenty accepted the invitation, but he did not guarantee an endorsement. For a couple weeks, he told Romney’s camp, he’d mull his options.

Before diving back into the campaign, Pawlenty had to take care of a few things. A day after the straw poll, he packed up his suitcase in a tiny Iowa hotel room and traded in his campaign’s RV. He and Mary drove directly from Ames to the University of Kansas with their oldest daughter, Anna, who was about to begin her freshman year. It was a long drive — just him and his family listening to country songs on his daughter’s iPod. Their car was packed to the brim — not with campaign posters, but bags of college-student clothes.

Once in Lawrence, Kan., he and Mary helped Anna move her boxes into the dorm and Pawlenty chatted with students on the quad. They were surprised to see him there — just another dad. The fun of the trip, the hours on empty Midwestern highways, the sudden but seamless transition from the trail — all of it made him at ease with his decision to leave the race, Pawlenty tells me.

For the rest of August, Pawlenty largely avoided the spotlight. He turned down nearly every press request. He didn’t want to revisit the minutiae of the campaign — whether he spent too much money ahead of the Ames straw poll, unnecessarily raising expectations, or whether he was too guarded on the trail. He knew he had made some missteps, but he didn’t want to rake over those details. He wanted to move on.

“Look, we probably put too many of our chips down on the results of the straw poll,” Pawlenty muses, as loud music blares at his gate. “It would have been better to calibrate our resources and our strategy for the longer haul. But that’s all 20/20 hindsight. We gave it our best effort.”

Pawlenty’s confidants called him, one by one, with suggestions for his future, from corporate positions to political gigs. He had a number of possibilities. But besides some part-time board positions, he eschewed most of the 9-to-5 temptations, in order to be, in essence, a full-time Romney foot soldier. The late-summer weekend on the lake with Mitt and Ann Romney, where they headed soon after returning from KU, sealed the deal.

Pawlenty and Romney clicked, probably more than both men expected. “Being at Lake Winnipesaukee reminded me of northern Minnesota, except that we don’t have mountains in northern Minnesota,” Pawlenty muses. “Here he is, in the middle of a presidential campaign, and Mitt picks us up at a boat slip and takes us on a long ride around the lake. Then we docked at his place, walked up to his house, and had a great dinner.”

“At the time, I was leaning strongly in that direction,” Pawlenty says of his Romney endorsement. But after talking with Romney about how he saw the race and its stakes, it became clear not only that Romney was his candidate, but that Romney wanted to be his friend and ally, which was more than welcome for someone licking his wounds. “It just affirmed what I knew: that this is a very capable, wise, and gracious person,” he says. “That was the icing on the cake.”

Once they knew he was on board, Romney’s campaign offered to help Pawlenty pay off his campaign debt, which totaled over $400,000. Romney advised his top bundlers and donors to give what they could to Pawlenty. Eventually, Romney’s financiers paid off the majority of it, between $300,000 and $400,000. Pawlenty paid off the rest by selling his donor database to conservative advocacy groups and making calls to his wealthy supporters.

At the time, Pawlenty joked with friends (and months later, the Morning Joe roundtable) that the only times he regretted not staying in the hunt were when he was alone, drinking in his windowless basement. Jousting for a few more months with Rick Santorum, an ex-senator in a sweater vest, and another Minnesota Republican, Michele Bachmann, would have been fun, he acknowledges. But all along, he wanted to run a big, policy-oriented campaign. If Hawkeye State voters didn’t bite, so be it.

When he’s not on the road for Romney, Pawlenty pays his bills with his board positions, offering his insights to a variety of small and mid-size companies. Most recently, he joined the board at Smart Sand, a sand-mining company that supplies gas-fracking sites. Other companies he works for include Digital River, an e-commerce company; RedPrairie, a medical-device company; and Vector Capital, a private-equity firm. He’s also taken his wife Mary on a Caribbean vacation — National Review’s cruise last fall.

Pawlenty keeps in touch with many of the people who worked for his presidential campaign, such as his former senior advisers, Sarah Fagen and Phil Musser, as well as with his former press aides, Alex Conant and Caitlin Dunn. Conant now works on Capitol Hill as Senator Marco Rubio’s press secretary, and Dunn holds the same position for Senator Rob Portman. Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and Pawlenty adviser, is now a senior policy adviser to Romney. Other advisers — Paul Anderson, Bob Schroeder, and Brian Hook — also remain close. “You can’t keep up with everybody, but I try,” Pawlenty says.

Hook, for his part, has kept Pawlenty engaged in foreign policy. In October 2011, Pawlenty traveled to Tunisia to monitor the elections, and more recently he has spoken on economic and national-security issues in Western Europe.

All of this toiling, both foreign and domestic, may seem like a play for the veep slot, but in our conversation and in many other forums, Pawlenty has denied any interest in the post — and he is always mum about the “process.” But that’s not surprising from a man who relishes being Romney’s “fill-in,” as he calls it — the former governor who doesn’t make news.

Pawlenty puts his hand over his cell phone when he hears an airline employee updating passengers about the departure. “Sorry for the chaos,” he says. “There’s a ton of noise.” The flight, he reports, is on; he’ll make it to Manchester, just later than he’d like. Pawlenty doesn’t complain about the delay. He tells me that he’ll put away his iPad, grab a paperback — Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur — and read. It’s just another day — and night — in the life of Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney’s traveling salesman.

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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