Image: Tim Pawlenty
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Gov. Tim Pawlenty visits the Minnesota headquarters of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain in St. Paul.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/14/2008 6:20:57 PM ET 2008-07-14T22:20:57

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is high on the list of possible running mates for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

But Pawlenty could have ended up merely a footnote in the history books — rather than on the short list for vice president — had it not been for a last-minute blunder by a man most Americans have never heard of: Mike Hatch.

Hatch was Pawlenty’s Democratic opponent in the 2006 election for Governor. Five days before voters went to the polls, Hatch blew up at a reporter.

“You’re nothing more than a Republican whore,” exploded Hatch, before hanging up on Duluth News Tribune reporter Scott Wente.

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Wente had been persistent in questioning Hatch about his running mate. She was unable to answer a question about ethanol, even though Minnesota is a top ethanol-producing state.

Video: Pawlenty makes the case for McCain

Just a few days before his outburst, Hatch had a five-point lead over Pawlenty in polling.

And despite a Democratic sweep in the state, Pawlenty survived, edging the Democrat Hatch by less than one percentage point.

“Reporters always say those (Hatch) comments were the turning point in that race, and I'm not saying they weren't noteworthy, but at least in terms of our internal polling, we had retaken the lead before those comments were made,” Pawlenty explained to NBC News/National Journal reporter Mike Memoli on Sunday.

He added, “I'm a big believer in working hard and trying to do your best. But I also realize there's a lot of timing and fate that comes with life.”

Given Pawlenty’s razor-thin margin of victory in 2006, “any one of many factors determined the outcome," says Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier, a veteran analyst of Minnesota politics.

"Hatch's blow up is certainly one of those factors. Without it, I doubt that we would be discussing Governor Pawlenty today.”

A twist of fate
But we are, thanks to his fateful win.

So why would Pawlenty be a good choice for the GOP ticket?

He has the advantage of his relative youth (he's 24 years younger than McCain) and his deft and engaging campaigning style.

He started out as a working-class kid from South Saint Paul who worked his way thorough college and law school.

And he can talk about issues — illegal immigration, rural development, biofuels — in very concrete and pragmatic terms based on his experience as governor, state legislator, and city councilman.

And unlike former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who's also said to be in contention as a McCain running mate, Pawlenty seems to have a genuine affection for McCain and an affinity with him.

Pawlenty's liabilities
But Pawlenty's 2006 near-death election experience shows one of his liabilities as a running mate for McCain.

Pawlenty has never been overwhelmingly popular in Minnesota.

In his first gubernatorial victory in 2002, Pawlenty won only 43 percent of the vote. There were third-party candidates both in 2002 and in 2006, as there usually are in Minnesota’s gubernatorial races.

No Republican presidential candidate has been able to carry the state since Richard Nixon did so in his 1972 landslide victory over George McGovern. A dominant reason for putting Pawlenty on the ticket would be his potential ability to swing Minnesota into John McCain's column. 

But based on his 2002 and 2006 performances, it appears far from a sure thing that Pawlenty could pull Minnesota's ten electoral votes over to the GOP.

“Pawlenty is a reasonably popular governor, whose job approval consistently rests between 50 and 60 percent of poll respondents,” said Schier.

“That said, Minnesota has trended Democratic in the last two election cycles and seems likely to continue that tendency in 2008," he added. "I tend to think of Pawlenty (and Sen. Norm Coleman, who has drawn a not very formidable opponent in Democrat Al Franken) as survivors in an increasingly Democratic state environment. The state Republican Party organization is not functioning well in elections or in its internal operations.”

The reverse side of the coin in Pawlenty’s narrow victories is that he has proven to be a battle-tested competitor in a state which has gone Democratic in all but one presidential election in the past 50 years.

If McCain does pick the Minnesota governor, he'll have to hope that Pawlenty's charmed life in Minnesota elections has one more fateful episode waiting to unfold on Nov. 4.

NBC News/National Journal reporter Mike Memoli contributed to this story.

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