Stamford, Conn.— Sometimes on the campaign trail, events and conclusions seem eerily similar. When we were dining with local Republican leaders in Indianapolis on the eve of the Indiana primary in May, my colleague Jamie Coomarasamy of the BBC noted the national media articles that week speculating about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as John McCain’s running mate and remarked: "It’s really Bobby Jindal’s week, isn’t it?"
On Friday (June 27th), Jamie and I looked at each other and the man sitting between us amid an overflow crowd of Connecticut Repubicans: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This time, no comment was made about the featured speaker at the Connecticut GOP’s annual Prescott Bush Awards Dinner. No comment was needed. It was obvioius that now, it’s Tim Pawlenty’s week to be in the vice presidential spotlight.
Fresh from a string of cable TV appearances in Des Moines, Iowa on behalf of John McCain’s presidential campaign, the two-term governor of the Gopher State was now the "visiting fireman" at an event that last year featured Fred Thompson as speaker amid speculation he would soon announce for President. As Pawlenty posed for pictures with Nutmeg State Republicans at a private reception and prepared to address the crowd of more than 500 at the Stamford Sheraton Hotel, one could almost feel the speculation of the Minnesotan as McCain’s runningmate.
"Our speaker tonight is on the shortest of short lists to be the next vice president," declared Rep. Chris Shays (R.-CT) in remarks preceding Pawlenty’s, prompting wild cheers from the audience. One of the most liberal Republicans in the House (albeit one under fire from Democrats this year because of his steadfast support of the Administration on Iraq), Shays left little doubt he would not mind running on a ticket with McCain and the conservative Minnesotan.
When I asked Lieutenant Gov. Michael Fedele, an early McCain backer, who he wanted for the running mate position, he remarked: "We’ve got someone speaking tonight who’s getting a lot of mention for it." Even McCain himself got into the act: in filmed remarks to the Bush event (which is named for George W. Bush’s grandfather, Republican senator from Connecticut from 1952-62), the soon-to-be presidential nominee hailed Pawlenty as "a rising star" in the Republican Party and how the governor was with him from the beginning as "a national co-chairman of my campaign."
Last year, Fred Thompson got tremendous buildup before his address to the Bush banquet and then got so-so reviews after his remarks. This year, no one had great expectations for Pawlenty–in large part because he is only now becoming known in national party circles. Yet the early verdict was that Pawlenty hit a home run with his upbeat message, spiced with quotes from Will Rogers, Martin Luther King, and columnist Tom (The World Is Flat) Friedman.
Even Republicans at the dinner I spoke to who voiced preferences for other vice presidential hopefuls made it clear that they had no objection to Pawlenty on the second spot with McCain. State GOP Chairman Chris Healy, who got his political start handing out leaflets at New York City subways for William F. Buckley’s race for mayor on the Conservative Party ticket, told me: "Look, a lot of our people want Mitt Romney as the running mate and feel he would energize a good number of economic conservatives. Personally, I would love to see McCain do something magical and pick [former Oklahoma Rep.] J.C. Watts. But Tim Pawlenty is also impressive. Anyone who can win the governorship twice in a state that last went Republican for President in 1972 and can work with that legislature to cut taxes is impressive. He can talk to the great middle."
So what does Pawlenty think of all this talk?
"I’m honored to be able to serve John McCain in the campaign," Pawlenty told me, "He’s a great leader who would make a great President. I’m also happy with my day job."
Does he talk to McCain regularly? Pawlenty replied that he was with the candidate at a series of events in Minnesota and "we keep in touch."