Pawlenty’s Iowa Visit Boosts Name ID

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has the chance this weekend to begin chipping away at Iowa Republicans unfamiliar with their neighbor governor to the north – someone seriously considering a 2012 campaign for president.

His aim in his first multi-stop Iowa trip is to pay special attention to Republicans in Democrat-leaning areas, reinforcing his own political narrative. The Iowa caucuses are expected to commence the 2012 presidential nominating process.

There are signs that activists in Iowa are becoming more familiar with Pawlenty.

Still, Pawlenty has a long way to go before it is clear whether his blue-state success and blue-collar background can help him carve a niche in a field that could include the party’s national stars, Iowa GOP activists said.

“He’s building his name identification. It’s not there yet,” Sac County Republican vice chairwoman Ann Trimble-Ray said of Pawlenty. “But when people come into Iowa and headline events for Iowa candidates, that helps get attention and build their credibility.”

Pawlenty, who is not seeking a third term this year, says he is focused on helping candidates for the 2010 elections and will decide whether to run for president late this year or early next.

Still, he has taken steps familiar for past White House prospects. He formed a national fundraising organization last year, allowing him to travel and contribute to fellow Republicans. Then in June, he formed fundraising organizations specifically to raise money for candidates in the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

National Republican strategists Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor – Iowa natives who launched their careers here – are helping Pawlenty at this early stage. In Iowa, former state GOP Chairman Chuck Larson and veteran Republican campaign strategist Karen Slifka are key consultants.

The weekend Iowa trip can help Pawlenty cut into the 53 percent of Iowa Republicans who said in The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll in June that they were too unfamiliar with him to say whether they viewed him favorably. It’s an improvement from November, when 73 percent said they knew too little about him.

But only 3 percent were unfamiliar with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, 11 percent with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 12 percent with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney was the second-place finisher in the 2008 caucuses, and all three are mentioned as potential 2012 candidates.

Pawlenty’s Iowa swing – his fourth stop in Iowa since the 2008 election – also gives him the chance to begin building relationships with Republican activists closer to the grass roots in Iowa, said Steve Lukan, state representative from New Vienna.

Pawlenty, who campaigned in Iowa for 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, has since made quick but important stops in Iowa, all in Des Moines. In November, he headlined the state GOP’s annual fall fundraiser. In April, he spoke at an event for Iowans for Tax Relief. And two weeks ago, he slipped in and out unannounced to speak to a conference of pastors.

He is scheduled to headline Statehouse candidate fundraisers in Dubuque, Waverly and Cedar Rapids today, and West Liberty on Sunday. He plans to cap the trip Monday with a morning stop in Davenport.

Lukan, who got to know Pawlenty at the April tax event, plans to introduce Pawlenty in Dubuque today. “He and I are somewhat similar,” Lukan said. “My district leans Democratic, but I’ve been able to do well here with a conservative message.”

Lukan cited as assets Pawlenty’s success in a state carried by the Democrat in every presidential election since 1972, and his appeal to working-class voters.

As governor, Pawlenty is credited with reducing the state’s overall spending for the first time in more than 20 years, winning approval for a performance-based pay program for teachers, and leading the effort to establish ambitious renewable energy standards. He also fought for tax exemptions for businesses that build or expand in blighted areas.

But he also lost tough battles with Democrat-controlled legislatures in his efforts at more controversial measures, such as amending the state constitution to cap state spending and to reinstate the death penalty.

Pawlenty often discusses his upbringing in South St. Paul as the son of a truck driver in a Democratic household. He talks about winning back “Sam’s Club Republicans,” and said in a 2008 Des Moines Register interview, “I think you can be a conservative and a Republican and a populist.”

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