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Pawlenty fate may rest on gay marriage, Iowa governor race

In 2006, Tim Pawlenty was the Minnesota Republican Party star as he accepted the GOP nomination for governor. In 2009, most observers think he is looking to become a national star. Don Davis/file photo/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- Tim Pawlenty's Iowa presidential caucus performance, if he runs for the White House, may hinge on whether he can hitch his star to the right Iowa governor candidate and how he deals with the hot-button gay marriage issue.

While the Minnesota governor is billed as keynote speaker at Saturday night's Republican Party dinner in Des Moines, the real interest of GOP activists will be on their state's 2010 governor's race and conservative social issues, not the 2012 presidential campaign that most observers expect Pawlenty to enter.

First-term Democratic Gov. Chet Culver's popularity is slipping badly, bringing former four-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad back into politics, with polls giving him a good chance to return to office.

Branstad, like Pawlenty, is more moderate than many of the leading presidential candidates. To win their races, Branstad and Pawlenty both need to woo right-wing Republicans, political science professor Rachel Paine Caufield of Des Moines' Drake University said, and if Branstad is successful, any presidential candidate connected to him also could benefit.

"Riding Branstad's coattails may be a good idea," Caufield said.

The new Iowa governor will be in office during the heaviest pre-caucus campaigning, she added, which could help the right presidential candidate. "If he (Branstad) wins, you have the governor of the state of Iowa helping you out on the campaign trail."

Conservative Republicans often dominate caucuses, which will be in early January of 2012, and in the coming years that may be even more true given their anger over an Iowa court decision allowing gay marriage. Caufield said that with the Republican Party's right wing likely to be fired up, any presidential candidate needs its support to win the caucuses, which are the country's first major test of presidential campaigns every four years.

Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa professor and GOP activist, said Pawlenty is becoming known.

"He is starting to get more of a presence and showing up on more of the news shows, which for me pretty much means Fox News," Hagle said. "He is getting asked for his opinion on these things more."

Pawlenty apparently wants to duplicate Barack Obama's performance of a neighboring-state candidate. There is precedence for a Minnesotan to win. Democrat Walter Mondale gathered an impressive 49 percent support in 1984.

Iowans tend to like candidates from neighboring states.

"It did help Obama and it could help Pawlenty." Caufield said. "There is a sense of a shared language, a shared ethos."

Iowans of both parties have done well in picking the eventual nominees.

However, GOP candidate John McCain opted not to take part in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, so he finished back in the pack. Expected 2012 candidates Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney fared well in Iowa last year. Huckabee already has been in Iowa, but Romney has not returned since the last caucuses.

Iowa's introduction to candidate Pawlenty (he campaigned for McCain before the 2008 vote) will be at the Saturday night poor-man's state party fund-raiser.

The dinner costs just $25 a person, far less than in previous years when the gathering was billed as a Ronald Reagan dinner (Reagan at one time was a Des Moines radio announcer known as "Dutch").

The Iowa Republican Web site told followers that Pawlenty is different from other candidates in at least one respect: "The governor of Minnesota is the new darling of the national media. What separates Pawlenty from his likely competition is that, while all of the other candidates either reside in the south or were involved in the 2008 campaign, Pawlenty has been successful in the blue (Democratic) state of Minnesota."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.