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Pawlenty's start was humble

By Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Tim Pawlenty may not know what his next political move will be, but Minnesota's Republican governor said on Tuesday that he expects to be involved nationally.

And if he runs for president, as many political pundits expect, it will be quite a rise from his stockyards neighborhood upbringing in South St. Paul.

Pawlenty's personal story has been told often, especially in the past year as bloggers and reporters tried to introduce him to the American public as a potential vice presidential or presidential candidate. Pawlenty finished second as John McCain's running mate to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, but the courtship allowed those who follow politics to get to know the 48-year-old Republican governor.

One of the first things they learned about his personal life was that he grew up in a South St. Paul working-class family, near what was then a major stockyard. He became the first from his family to get a college education, despite his mother dying when the future governor was a teenager and his father losing his trucking job the same year.

He earned his bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus and worked in a private law practice. He was elected to the Eagan City Council, then served 10 years in the Minnesota House before running for governor in 2002. (It is little remembered, but he began a governor campaign in 1998, eventually giving way to then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman who lost to Jesse Ventura.)

Pawlenty faced a tough challenge for the GOP nomination in 2002, fighting well-known businessman Brian Sullivan at the state party convention until 4 a.m. before winning enough votes for the party's endorsement.

Two words explained why Pawlenty won the party's backing: "Experience and leadership," said Diane Vlach, at the time co-chairwoman of the Kandiyohi County Republicans.

He based his campaigns on leadership.

"There is a value to having public service experience," Pawlenty said. "I have enough to know what I am talking about, but not so much that I am stuck in the past."

Pawlenty won each the 2002 and 2006 elections with less than 50 percent of the vote. He appeared to be trailing going into the final weekend of the 2006 race, winning only after challenger Attorney General Mike Hatch showed his famous temper.

In his typical smooth manner, Pawlenty acknowledged Democratic gains across Minnesota and the United States three years ago, and said his victory provided an opportunity to be grateful.

"We also have to realize the country's divided, and we need to come together," Pawlenty said.

The Republican began his first term well-liked even by Democrats, but some who liked his personality at the time have since grown tired of Pawlenty, saying his refusal to raise taxes or take other measures to help Minnesotans is wrong.

To win enough conservatives to his side in 2002, Pawlenty signed a pledge promising not to raise taxes. Even as that helped him win conservatives, it has been a problem with other Minnesotans.

As governor, one of Pawlenty's favorite phrases has been "nation-leading," when referring to any number of areas where Minnesota is atop national rankings. For instance, he likes to tout the state's leadership in homeownership, its good health ratings and high education levels.

As chairman of the National Governors' Association, a term that ended a year ago, Pawlenty emphasized energy and the environment, an unusual combination for a Republican politician. That raised a few Republican eyebrows from people who thought those were Democratic issues.

He pushed a plan, enacted by lawmakers, to force the state to generate 25 percent of Minnesota electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

In the past year, Pawlenty has been a regular on national television news programs, mostly touting McCain's candidacy, but also discussing Minnesota issues such as energy. Often he talks about "Sam's Club Republicans," a more moderate version of the party members who he said do not get enough attention from GOP leaders.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.