Image: presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty
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Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty spoke about his candidacy on "Meet the Press" July 10, 2011 in Washington, DC.
updated 8/15/2011 10:40:15 AM ET 2011-08-15T14:40:15

Tim Pawlenty departed the Republican presidential race branded a “me-too” conservative who didn’t have the guts to speak his mind when it counted.

What a shame. What a shame that Pawlenty bowed to the Tea Party wing of his party and abandoned the qualities that made him a popular two-term Minnesota governor. He was once known for his blue-state moderation and political courage.

Not anymore. A fact that says as much about today’s GOP as it does about Pawlenty himself.

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Pawlenty first crossed my radar in April 2004 when I stopped by the Minnesota governor’s office at the start of a five-state trip to gauge the mood of U.S. voters early in the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush.

It was an inflection point for Bush. While his approval ratings were still relatively high, the percentage of people who trusted the president had begun to fall. An Associated Press poll released the week of my visit found that an increasing number of people — about half — felt that military action in Iraq had increased the threat of terrorism. A growing number of Americans feared that Iraq would become another intractable war like Vietnam.

Still, few if any Republican leaders had spoken out against the war.

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“People are becoming unnerved about it,” Pawlenty said when I asked off-handedly how the war was playing in his state. “Minnesota communities are strong and tough, but people do want to know, 'What's the endgame here?'"

He knew the comment would draw fire from the White House — and , indeed, Karl Rove made his anger known to Pawlenty within hours of the interview. But Pawlenty spoke from his heart; earlier in the week, he had attended the funeral of a Minnesota serviceman killed in Iraq, and would attend another in a few days.

Pawlenty advisers told me later that Rove’s office asked the governor to disavow the comments. Pawlenty stood by what he said.

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“It's a mess,” he said. “You've got people there who, based on religious backgrounds, hate each other. They've got all kinds of agendas and sub-agendas, and I think it's confusing to Americans because they don't understand why Iraqis don't like us. They don't get it."

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Contrast that to a low point in Pawlenty’s presidential campaign. In a mid-June debate, Pawlenty backed down from criticizing GOP rival Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, which only a day earlier he had called “Obamneycare.” He later admitted it had been a mistake to back down.

Pawlenty also backed away from his record in Minnesota, where he advocated blue-collar conservatism. He represented a more modern, inclusive Republican Party — a “party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club” - that stressed lower taxes while eschewing divisive politics.

But as a presidential candidate he followed the Tea Party to the right — out of political necessity, his aides would whisper – on such issues as health care reform and climate change. Once known as a national leader on the environment, Pawlenty apologized to anybody who would listen for his “flirtation” with cap-and-trade policy.

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Some say he lacked guts as a presidential candidate: He couldn’t criticize Romney to his face, much less stare down the Tea Party. Really? The guy stood up to Bush and Rove. There must another explanation. Perhaps, as a rookie presidential candidate, Pawlenty was too cautious and over-reliant on his consultants. Maybe he can blame the media, those damn reporters who couldn’t write enough about his flip-flopping to the right. Or it might just be that Pawlenty bowed to a new political reality in the GOP: The Tea Party is scarier than Karl Rove, even at his angriest and most powerful, which is saying something.

Whatever the explanation, the politician who blinked in Romney’s presence was a pale imitation of the one who raised a red flag over Iraq in the spring of 2004.

"They're starting to ask this question,” Pawlenty said of Minnesota voters seven years ago: "'Is this thing really going to work?'"

The answer, of course, was no. The Iraq war did not work as promised.

And, sadly — mysteriously — neither did Pawlenty’s campaign.

The article, "Governor Pawlenty vs. candidate Pawlenty," first appeared in the National Journal.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ron Fournier, editor-in-chief of the National Journal Group, was the AP’s political reporter when he interviewed Pawlenty in 2004.

Video: Field of shaken dreams in Iowa after Straw Poll

  1. Transcript of: Field of shaken dreams in Iowa after Straw Poll

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: The last 24 hours have brought some big changes to the field of Republican presidential challengers, including the campaign season's first casualty as ex- Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty exits the race following a poor showing in yesterday's Iowa 's straw poll . Fellow Minnesotan , Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann has now cemented her place among the top tier of contenders while also being forced to contend with a newcomer. NBC 's Kelly O'Donnell reports from Des Moines .

    Unidentified Woman: We enjoyed having...

    KELLY O'DONNELL reporting: For Governor Tim Pawlenty it's over after a disappointing third place at the Ames straw poll .

    Governor TIM PAWLENTY: I wish it would have been different, but obviously the pathway forward for me doesn't really exist and so we're going to end the campaign.

    O'DONNELL: Beginning his own White House run, Texas Governor Rick Perry phoned Pawlenty .

    Governor RICK PERRY: I told him, I said, ' Dadgummit ,' I said, 'I was looking forward to getting out there and jousting with you.' He said, 'Yeah, and I would have kicked your tail, too.' Howdy, like your shirt.

    O'DONNELL: The 61-year-old former Air Force pilot is the longest serving governor Texas has ever had. A Christian conservative who often speaks of faith in public.

    Gov. PERRY: I'm going to bless the meal real quick, all right. Does that suit you all? OK. Father, thank you for the day and we thank you for all your blessings, and bless this food to nourish our bodies. We ask this all in your name and ask for wisdom and grace in this country. Amen. All right!

    O'DONNELL: Perry 's campaign bus arrived in Iowa before he did. Tonight he kicks off a three-day Iowa tour, speaking in Michele Bachmann 's childhood hometown, Waterloo . Both Pawlenty 's exit and Perry 's launch consumed political oxygen that typically would have gone to the straw poll 's actual winner, Congresswoman Bachmann , who appeared on all five Sunday morning talk shows , including " Meet the Press ."

    Representative MICHELE BACHMANN: I'm grateful that we won the straw poll , but we see this as just the very first step in a very long race.

    O'DONNELL: A close second in the straw poll Texas Congressman Ron Paul , who claims grassroots strength. Paul and national front-runner Mitt Romney did not hold events today. Bachmann and Perry will both speak at the same Republican dinner tonight. Bachmann told David Gregory she welcomes the competition.

    Rep. BACHMANN: He'll run his campaign. We'll run ours. But we really look forward to that. And what I'm really looking forward to more than anything is taking on Barack Obama as the Republican nominee.

    O'DONNELL: And all the other campaigns are now anxious to get Tim Pawlenty 's donors, supporters, volunteers and even staff. And there'll be a must-do tradition tomorrow right here at the Iowa State Fair , Lester , when Governor Rick Perry gets his first taste of this place as a candidate. Lester :


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