It’s still too early to start picking sides for the 2012 Republican nomination, but Tim Pawlenty points out an interesting conundrum likely to occur in the primaries.  As the Weekly Standard reports, Pawlenty discusses some policy positions and puts a little distance between himself and Mitch Daniels on pro-life issues.  However, in the face of a radical Democratic agenda, the GOP candidates will likely all agree on the biggest priorities, such as repealing ObamaCare, taxes, and spending, with most of the differences amounting to nibbling at the edges.  What will differentiate candidates in a time of consensus?

But in the end, Pawlenty said, there won’t be much difference between GOP presidential candidates on the issues. He said it’s important to have a presidential candidate who doesn’t live up to the stereotype that Republicans are “all CEOs” who “play polo on the weekends.” Pawlenty made the case that his background as the son of a truck driver who worked his way through college helps him reach out to working class voters, who are turned off by “country club elitists.”

“In the end, there’s going to be five, ten, twelve candidates standing on the stage who, at least for now, all look kind of the same… And they’re going to say about the same thing” on the issues, he said. “But the real question’s going to be, as to tone and face and credibility, who is best situated to open the door to people that are not yet Republicans? To say, we understand what you’re going through and we can make a connection with you in ways that have some credibility?”

It’s a good question.  Right now, in the abstract, most people support ABO — Anyone But Obama.  And no one has to make up their mind for at least a year beyond that.  At some point, though, people will have to make a choice, and the tension of trying to demonstrate change from an unpopular Republican administration won’t exist.  If the economy still lags by then, the GOP candidates will likely remain united on policy and priorities.

So how to choose?  Will we indeed need to open the door to the Big Tent, or will a base turnout model be enough?  The latter worked in 2004 to re-elect George Bush, but that worked in part because voters are reluctant to change horses in midstream — an inertia that the GOP will also have to overcome in 2012.  Only two of the last seven elected presidents failed to win a second term, Carter and Bush 41, even with strong economic problems for Nixon and Reagan.

Pawlenty is probably right that the GOP nominee has to have the ability to reach out to independents if Republicans want to beat Obama, or at least keep independents from voting for Obama.  However, I think the attraction will be executive competence, not the tension between “country-club elitists” and their counterparts among the hoi polloi.  Republicans don’t play class warfare well, but the GOP has a winning argument on competence and the lack of it in the Obama administration.  After the disaster of this White House, voters on the fence will want to feel as though a challenger has already demonstrated he or she can handle the job.  And that will pull independents who may need objective and emotional reasons to offer trust to the Republicans in 2012.

Update: John McCormack reported on a Pawlenty appearance, and didn’t conduct an interview with him.  I misunderstood that when reading the article, which was entirely my error.