By all measures, Tim Pawlenty had a rough start to last week. He came off in the New Hampshire debate as unsure and timid, leaving some Republicans to think that if he could not even make his case against Romney and attack him in person as he did in a television studio the day before, he probably would not be effective against President Obama.
Perhaps New Hampshire served as a wake-up call for Pawlenty and his campaign.
And if he ends up catching fire in the months ahead, the New Hampshire debate may go down as the best thing that happened to Team Pawlenty.
Last weekend at the Right Online conference, a different Pawlenty emerged, and his strong performance blunted many of the week’s prior mishaps.
Pawlenty’s supporters claim that he’s relaxed, funny, charming, and engaging in person, but that is often not how he comes across in front of large audiences and on television, where he comes off as a tad stiff and forced.
At Right Online, Pawlenty did not speak behind the lectern. He spoke casually without a tie. It was his best performance of the 2012 campaign cycle.
Pawlenty talked about how he turned a liberal state red. He gave a great anecdote about a family at a gas station in speaking about putting things in context.
He spoke convincingly and passionately about how America is the greatest nation because Americans are free, and when people are free they can dream.
He told the audience how he went to Iowa, Florida, and New York and spoke truth on ethanol subsidies, social security reform and wall street bailouts.
He was optimistic in defending his plans for five percent growth, which prominent economists such as Stanford’s John Taylor have said was not implausible, contrary to some of his critics who Pawlenty may paint as dour and pessimistic.
He spoke about his record of turning liberal Minnesota into a more conservative state and even gave an anecdote of how transit union employees referred to him as a “weapon of mass transit distraction.”
His performance at Right Online made me think of John Edwards in the Democratic primary in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 primary. In 2004, Edwards, who wasn’t catching fire, delivered a passionate “Two Americas” speech which gave him momentum that he used to almost win the nomination and gain a spot on the ticket as John Kerry’s vice presidential candidate.
And in 2008, after many underwhelming public appearances, Barack Obama lit up an Iowa auditorium and brought down the auditorium with his Jefferson-Jackson address. His campaign caught fire after that moment and propelled him toward the nomination.
Pawlenty has the compelling life story, a conservative record in a liberal state, and forward looking policies that can be for the 2012 GOP cycle what Edwards was to Democrats in 2004 and Obama in 2008.
All Pawlenty has lacked is a polished presentation.
This weekend at Right Online, Pawlenty proved he may have the potential to gear up for “that moment” when things come together and the candidate finds himself and the requisite groove that is needed to propel him to greater heights.