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Scot Lehigh

Pawlenty vs. Romney

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / January 26, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H.

TIM PAWLENTY, former governor of Minnesota and probable future Republican presidential candidate, has just finished an animated pitch to the Merrimack County Republican Committee. Now it’s time for the obvious question: What does he offer that putative front-runner Mitt Romney doesn’t?

Pawlenty sidesteps. “I don’t get into comparing myself to other candidates,’’ he tells me. “I just say what I stand for and what I believe and what I’ve done, and then people can make their own judgments.’’

Pawlenty hails from deep in the nation’s Nice Belt, so perhaps he’s sincere about that, though I suspect what he really means is: Oh no, you’re not going to lure me into that — not at this introductory stage in the game.

Still, the crowd has clearly come to see how Pawlenty, who finished third in a weekend straw poll behind Romney and Ron Paul, stacks up against a front-runner who leaves some underwhelmed. In a possible GOP field that includes figures whose offputting political pasts (Newt Gingrich) or too-light, too-right profiles (Sarah Palin) would render them general election Hindenburgs, and others whose regional or religious personae (Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee) seem unlikely to translate in flinty New Hampshire, Pawlenty deserves notice.

So let’s look at the tale of the tape. Romney was a one-term Republican governor of deep blue Massachusetts; Pawlenty did him one better, winning a second gubernatorial term in almost-as-azure Minnesota.

Pawlenty also registers better on the all-important Reaganometer. Romney was late in accepting Ronald Reagan as his political savior, declaring in 1994 that, heresy of heresies, he was “not trying to return to Reagan-Bush.’’ Pawlenty gravitated Gipperward as a college student. Indeed, mere proximity to the Great Communicator at an event rendered him giddy. “I didn’t have a chance to interact with him, but it was meaningful to me just to be in his presence,’’ he writes in “Courage to Stand,’’ his new campaign book. “I left the event in awe of him and inspired.’’

A brief digression: Like many current Reagan devotees, Pawlenty seems more enamored of the GOP’s romanticized political portrait than the actual historical figure. Reminded that, faced with large deficits after his tax cuts, the Gipper bit the bullet and acceded to several substantial tax increases, Pawlenty makes it clear he won’t be that Reaganesque.

“I have been very strong in saying as governor and I believe overall that we shouldn’t raise taxes,’’ he said.

That highlights the ironic nature of the GOP’s Reagan idolatry: Given his presidential tax hikes and the record-setting revenue increase he signed as governor of California, the real Reagan probably wouldn’t be ideologically pure enough for the party that has remade itself in his idealized, air-brushed image.

But onward. Based on my conversations with New Hampshire Republicans, Pawlenty also has an advantage in what he hasn’t done. Specifically, he didn’t engineer a state health care law that was the model for ObamaCare.

One caveat here, however: GOP efforts to mischaracterize that national law will be difficult indeed with Romney immovable as the rock of Gibraltar in insisting that no statute built on private-insurance coverage and based on individual responsibility can be fairly described as either a government take-over or socialism. (Just kidding — kidding about skittery Mitt resembling the planet’s most redoubtable rock, that is.)

Although Pawlenty has a reputation as bland, his speech recounting his gubernatorial battles on behalf of smaller government, a public pension overhaul, tort reform, and performance pay for teachers was anything but. His address was lively, forceful, and occasionally funny — and he seemed more comfortable in his skin than Romney usually does.

To be sure, Romney commands some distinct advantages of his own. His vast wealth imparts a large funding advantage, and having already run once, he’s got a national network, widespread name recognition, valuable experience, and perhaps an it’s-his-turn edge with those Republicans who still believe in political primogeniture. And though Pawlenty talks about the need for government to listen to the job creators, Romney’s successful business career imparts better CEO karma and private-sector credibility.

Yet I left Pawlenty’s speech impressed with his talent — and so did the Republicans I talked to afterward. He’s a candidate who could leave Romney glancing nervously over his shoulder as he tries to preserve his New Hampshire advantage.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.