Minnesota's Republican Party holds its state convention this week, and delegates will endorse a candidate for governor Friday. The race is a virtual dead heat between the two candidates vying for the endorsement, Orono businessman Brian Sullivan and House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan. Pawlenty says his experience and background are the main reasons delegates should choose him.
Tim Pawlenty's path to the governor's race took some unexpected turns. He first decided against running for governor, since some of the party faithful were already backing Brian Sullivan. Pawlenty had set his sights on the U.S. Senate, by challenging DFL incumbent Paul Wellstone.
But on the day he had planned to announce his campaign, Vice President Dick Cheney called Pawlenty and urged him to drop out of the race. The White House wanted former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to have a clear path to the November election. So Pawlenty regrouped and decided to run for governor.
At a recent St. Paul fundraiser, Pawlenty mixed in stories about his family with politics, policy and his opinion of Gov. Jesse Ventura, who hasn't decided if he'll run again. Pawlenty says voters who chose Ventura four years ago will have a different perspective this November.
"It was kind of funny to take a flyer on the guy who sounded and looked and acted kind of funny and entertaining. And it was," says Pawlenty. "But times have changed - we're at war, we're in a recession. We have huge budget deficits, thousands of people are getting laid off, and it's not so funny anymore."
Pawlenty is quick to discuss his blue collar roots. He's the son of a South St. Paul truck driver and a homemaker. Pawlenty's mother died when he was 16, and he had to pay his way through the University of Minnesota. He's the only Republican in his family. He worked on the campaigns of former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and Jon Grunseth, who ran for governor in 1990.
As majority leader, Pawlenty has learned the fine art of debating and routinely fires off great one-liners. He demonstrated his Ventura imitation for some delegates.
"Governor Ventura says a lot of crazy things. One of my favorites is what he said a few months ago. 'You know, when you're right 85 percent of the time, who cares about the other three percent,'" Pawlenty quoted Ventura.
Pawlenty plays up his working class roots, and says one of his main goals is to make the Republican Party more inclusive.
"This is not just the party of big business, or the job environment, or cutting taxes," says Pawlenty. "This is the party that's gotta have somebody who has a blue collar background, who understands that part of what government needs to do is provide opportunities for folks."
Pawlenty, however, also touts his conservative principles. As the House majority leader, he helped champion property tax reform and tax cuts. He also opposes legal abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when a woman's life is in jeopardy.
Pawlenty says he won't raise taxes if elected, and says voters need only to look at his nine-year voting record to see his conservative fingerprints.
But Brian Sullivan says Pawlenty's record has flaws. Pawlenty has voted to fund light rail transit, and supported a gay rights amendment as a freshman legislator.
Sullivan, who made millions after he sold his water filtration company, has no political experience. He says that should give him an advantage in a campaign that could include Ventura and DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe.
"Our opponents won't be able to pigeonhole me negatively, the way they can a legislator who's taken thousands and thousands of votes. And this is a huge advantage for our candidacy," says Sullivan.
Pawlenty says Sullivan's inexperience could hurt the state, when it's having budget problems and has been stuck in neutral with tripartisan government. He also says Minnesotans will be turned off by a candidate from the East Coast.
"He has never cast a vote. (He) says he's for apple pie and Chevrolet - and I am too. He hasn't gotten into the details," says Pawlenty. "I cast 10,000 votes in the Legislature. Beyond being for education and roads - we don't know what he really stands for."
Pawlenty hasn't said if he'll run for his legislative seat if he loses the endorsement.More from MPR