Tim Pawlenty in Iowa: Staying bland and playing it safe.

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Aug. 10 2011 1:19 PM

Hey, Remember Me?

Tim Pawlenty fights for the spotlight.

Tim Pawlenty campaigning in Iowa.
Tim Pawlenty campaigning in Iowa

HUMBOLDT, Iowa—It became very clear, very quickly, what the media was looking for from Tim Pawlenty this week. We wanted him to tell us what Tim Pawlenty thought of the other people running for president.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The governor started Tuesday with an 8 a.m. trip to a cafe outside Des Moines, then returned to the Capitol where he joined social conservative groups—the National Organization for Marriage, the Iowa FAMiLY Leader—at the launch of their Values Voter bus tour.

"I want to thank you for standing for a culture of life," he said. "I want to thank you for standing for traditional marriage. I want to thank you for standing for those values that made this nation great."

As he spoke, a platoon of handsome young people wearing orange T-shirts passed out fliers for Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, who is likely to announce his own presidential bid on Saturday. A lone conservative protester, John Strong, held up a sign attacking Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for being too kooky. Pawlenty wrapped and walked over to talk to a few voters. A reporter used the lull to ask a question.

"What do you think of Gov. Perry getting into the race on Saturday?"

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Pawlenty conferred with his spokesman, Alex Conant. "We're not doing a scrum," said Pawlenty. He walked into the campaign's temporary conveyance, a Winnebago Voyager unadorned by any campaign colors or logos or portraits. (There is a decked-out bus for the "Road to Results," but it's in the shop with busted air conditioning.) Back outside, after only four minutes of exposure, the few voters watching all this had shrugged.

"He doesn't have a lot of zap or enthusiasm," Strong fretted. "He reminded me of Bob Dole." Strong will head to the Ames Straw Poll in search of someone better.

The next event was all Pawlenty's—no "grass-roots" Perrymaniacs, no protesters. A library in Boone, Iowa, up I-35 from Des Moines, handed the campaign its meeting room, and it filled up quickly. Around 50 people, mostly older men, made their way past a table covered in TPaw literature (a picture of the governor in hunting gear; a smiling family photo with the "results not rhetoric" slogan) and vied for a small number of chairs. It was an ideal Pawlenty crowd, completely unconcerned with the flashier candidates, completely interested in beating Barack Obama.

"I'm not looking for pizzazz," said Len Schabold, a business consultant from the city.

"I voted for McCain last time," said Steve Lawler, a farmer who lives eight miles east of the library. "McCain could have won, maybe, if he'd had the right running mate. I think that could have been Pawlenty, to tell you the truth."

Pawlenty arrived and gave them what they expected. His stump speech consists of three or four moveable parts. Depending on how they're arranged, they can lead to something that loses steam quickly, loses steam slowly, or slowly builds into a raise-the-roof success. They all start well, with Pawlenty trying to convince the crowd that he's a schlub. The Boone version of the trope is a story about his wife giving him a pep talk about running for governor in 2001—"I'm Rocky Balboa, and this is my Adrian!"—that he remembered when he came into office.

"The job was very hard to deal with from a schedule standpoint, and Mary was holding me to account for my schedule," said Pawlenty. "We had a little tense discussion about that. I said, 'Honey, don't you remember? You're the one that gave me the inspiring speech in my living room to do this.' And she said, 'Yeah, I remember, but I didn't think you'd win!' "