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Pawlenty vows to shrink government

He kick-starts campaign for president in Iowa

Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and his wife, Mary, greeted local residents after a town hall meeting at the State of Iowa Historical Building in Des Moines. Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, and his wife, Mary, greeted local residents after a town hall meeting at the State of Iowa Historical Building in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/ Associated Press)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post / May 24, 2011

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DES MOINES — Republican Tim Pawlenty launched his campaign for president in Iowa yesterday by saying he would substantially scale back the role of government in society, including cutting or eliminating popular federal programs.

The former Minnesota governor said he would gradually raise the retirement age for Social Security, overhaul Medicare, freeze federal worker salaries, and, perhaps most consequential in the early presidential battleground of Iowa, end ethanol subsidies.

Kicking off a week of campaigning in the early voting states with an announcement speech in Des Moines, Pawlenty presented himself as a serious candidate for serious times who has the courage to tell Americans the truth about the challenges the country faces.

“We need to cut spending — and we need to cut it big-time,’’ Pawlenty said in a 23-minute speech before a few hundred supporters on the terrace of the Iowa Historical Building overlooking the State Capitol. “The hard truth is that there are no longer any sacred programs.’’

Pawlenty acknowledged that his agenda may be difficult for voters to embrace, but is calculating that the American public is hungry for a presidential candidate who will be honest and make difficult decisions.

“I could stand here and tell you that we can solve America’s debt crisis and fix our economy without making any tough choices,’’ Pawlenty said. “But we’ve heard those kinds of empty promises before and for the last three years, and we know where they’ve gotten us. Fluffy promises of hope and change don’t buy our groceries, make our mortgage payments, put gas in our cars, or pay for our children’s clothes.

He added, “Politicians are often afraid that if they’re too honest, they might lose an election. I’m afraid that in 2012, if we’re not honest enough, we may lose our country.’’

Pawlenty entered a contest that has become more solidified in recent days with the announcements by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, and real estate mogul Donald Trump that they would not run for president.

That leaves Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor, as the presumed front-runner. Pawlenty is hoping to emerge as the leading alternative to Romney, as is potential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and ambassador to China.

Pawlenty, 50, began that effort with his speech in Des Moines, which he started with a direct declaration: “I’m Tim Pawlenty, and I’m running for president of the United States.’’

A former two-term governor who was on the short list to become John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Pawlenty had left little doubt that he would become an official candidate. He has visited Iowa 14 times since November 2008, more than any other potential candidate, according to Iowapolitics.com. And he has hired veteran Iowa operatives, including Eric Woolson, who managed Huckabee’s winning Iowa campaign in 2008.

Indeed, by announcing his candidacy here, Pawlenty signaled that a strong finish in the first-in-the-nation caucuses is central to his overall strategy.

But of the major candidates, Pawlenty has one of the lowest national profiles, registering in the single digits in most public polls.

“He’s acceptable to everybody in the party,’’ said Vin Weber, former congressman and a top supporter and adviser to Pawlenty. “There’s no problem hanging over Tim Pawlenty that’s going to emerge as a big roadblock to his candidacy. The biggest issue is he is not yet nationally known and we will not keep up with Romney in terms of fund-raising.’’

Earlier this month, Romney announced he had raised more than $10 million in a single day, a feat few candidates are likely to match. On NBC’s “Today Show’’ yesterday, Matt Lauer asked Pawlenty about his ability to raise enough money to be competitive.

“We’re not going to be the money champion in the race,’’ Pawlenty said. “It may not be the BMW or the Mercedes campaign, but it’s going to be a good strong Buick, and maybe trending towards a Cadillac.’’

In his speech, Pawlenty did not mention his Republican rivals, but criticized President Obama.

He blamed the president for the nation’s unemployment and called Obama’s health care law an “unmitigated disaster.’’

“We’ve tried Barack Obama’s way, and his way has failed,’’ Pawlenty said. “Three years into his term, we’re no longer just running out of money. We’re running out of time.’’

On ethanol subsidies, a popular program in Iowa that presidential candidates have long supported, Pawlenty said the country can no longer afford them.

“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,’’ he said. “We need to do it gradually. We need to do it fairly. But we need to do it.’’

Pawlenty will campaign today in Florida, where he said he will tell young people that he would raise the retirement age on Social Security and tell wealthy elderly people that their benefits would be means-tested.

Later in the week, he will campaign in New York, where he said he would tell Wall Street: “If I’m elected, the era of bailouts, handouts, carve-outs are over. No more subsidies, no more special treatment, no more Fannie and Freddie, no more TARP, and no more ‘too big to fail.’ ’’