Image: Tim Pawlenty
Jim Mone  /  AP
Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the Minnesota State Fair. Pawlenty is considered a possible running mate for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/28/2008 6:30:11 PM ET 2008-08-28T22:30:11

On the eve of what may be the most important event in his life — being chosen as Sen. John McCain’s running mate — Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty showed up here in Denver Thursday seeming like one remarkably cool customer.

The 47-year old two-term governor gave no indication of what, if anything, he knew about McCain's decision making, even as many speculated he would be the one making a dramatic debut by McCain’s side Friday in Dayton, Ohio.

A new development driving some of the speculation: Pawlenty cancelled all his scheduled media interviews for Thursday afternoon.

Minnesota media types who have covered Pawlenty for years say his demeanor and “vibes” didn’t seem to indicate he is McCain’s pick.

But perhaps the Minnesotan is just a masterful dissembler.

Asked how Republicans would react to Democratic/independent Sen. Joe Lieberman as McCain’s running mate, Pawlenty seemed to pour cold water on the idea.

“Republicans would be expecting that somebody within the broad range of the Republican Party would be selected.” That would surely include Pawlenty, an anti-abortion fiscal conservative.

Thursday morning in Denver at a GOP press conference, Pawlenty was loose and relaxed, a glibly effective dispenser of anti-Obama sound bites.

'A roll of the dice'
He reminded reporters that Bill Clinton had just a few months ago warned that an Obama presidency would be “a roll of the dice” because the Illinois senator has a slim career dossier.

Pawlenty fact-checked Clinton’s Wednesday night convention speech, saying that Clinton himself had served for 12 years as governor of Arkansas before becoming president, so in fact he was far more seasoned when elected president in 1992 than Obama is now.

Pawlenty said he would not answer vice presidential questions, but he could not resist noting that he himself had served for six years as governor and “commander-in-chief of the Minnesota National Guard for six years.”

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Video: McCain to unveil VP Friday

He mocked Obama for claiming as a bipartisan credential his work with Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind. on strengthening the program to round up loose nuclear material from the former Soviet republics. “Who’s against rounding up loose nuclear weapons? How controversial is that?” Pawlenty asked.

He said that by contrast an example of real political bravery was McCain’s advocacy of the troop surge in Iraq, which “is now the stuff of history …. He foresaw the need for the surge, but more importantly, he had the courage to say it, even in the face of being criticized by his own party.”

All an illusion?
But what if Thursday’s veep fever is all just an illusion? What’s ahead for Pawlenty?

Whether or not he’s McCain’s running mate, Pawlenty has gained a valuable eight weeks of intense news media exposure as one of the Republicans on McCain’s short list.

His gubernatorial term ends in January 2011, and he said Thursday he’ll make his plans known early next year.

If McCain were to lose in November, Pawlenty could hop across the state line to Iowa and spend the next few years visiting every Hampton Inn and Marriott in the Hawkeye State, running for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

If he has a future in national politics, what sort of criticism and opposition research do Democrats dish up about him?

Democrats say one symbol they would seek to use against Pawlenty and Republicans generally is the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis last year.

Have Republicans, both in Washington and in the states, neglected infrastructure? Last February Pawlenty vetoed a transportation funding bill because it included an increase in the gasoline tax.

The state legislature overrode his veto, with six Republicans voting to defy him.

He said Thursday, “It’s fair to say the country is behind on infrastructure; I think everybody recognizes that on both sides of the aisle…. Most Republicans do not believe, particularly in these times, that raising the gas tax is a good idea.”

But why wouldn’t the governor show the kind of courage that he finds so praiseworthy in McCain — the courage to do the unpopular thing?

Challenging Democrats on gas tax
Pawlenty noted in his defense that even the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, a fellow Minnesotan, Rep. James Oberstar, would not put a federal gasoline tax increase to a vote in his committee. “If Democrats are pointing to the gas tax as the future of transportation funding and as something they support,” then why won’t they put it to a vote?

Pawlenty said governor and legislators should look at state-private partnership deals to raise revenue for highways, as well as more use of state bonds, and congestion pricing so that drivers would be charged for using roads at peak times.

He added, “I’ve been governor since 2003. During the first four years of my administration, there was more infusion of money into roads and bridges by a long shot than any other comparable time in the modern history of the state.”

He also said “the definitive word on the 35W bridge issue comes from the National Transportation Safety Board). There are some people on the other side of the aisle who have tried to — sadly — politicize the bridge issue. The NTSB has publicly stated they have leading theories as to why the bridge fell."

He added, "The final word on this won’t come until the fall. The leading theories relate to a design flaw in the original design and construction of the bridge dating back to the 1960s, as well as some weight distribution issues ….”

Another charge Democrats talk about using against Pawlenty is the 2003 murder of Dru Sjodin, a student at the University of North Dakota, by a sex offender named Alphonso Rodriguez who was released from a Minnesota facility.

Did the Pawlenty administration make a mistake in releasing Rodriguez?

The decision to release Rodriguez, Pawlenty said, was made under the administration of his predecessor, Jesse Ventura.

“The terms and conditions of probation were decided after I became governor,” Pawlenty added.

He also said “there was a lot of misinformation about whether we somehow at the time were going to release sex offenders for budgetary purposes.” But he argued that he issued an executive order mandating that all the most dangerous sex offenders in Minnesota be considered for civil commitment, a process that would keep them locked up even after they finished serving their full criminal sentence.

On such nitty-gritty historical detail will be fought the battle over Pawlenty’s future, whether in 2008 or in 2012, if he runs then.

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