In a surprise, Tim Pawlenty announced a few minutes ago that he would not sign The Family Leader Marriage Pledge, one day after Mitt Romney also refused to sign it and a week after Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum added their name to the vow. Pawlenty praised the intent of Bob Vander Plaats, the influential Iowa Republican pushing to get Republicans to sign the pledge, but “respectfully” refused to follow suit:

“Mary and I have been married for almost 24 years and have been blessed with two wonderful daughters. In all we do, we remain committed to our core values that are set out in scripture. We are saved by grace. As Christians we are to speak the truth, but to do so with love.

“Voters have a right to know about their leaders’ faith and values, and how those beliefs may shape their decisions. To that end, today my campaign released a new video in which both Mary and I speak directly and openly about our faith. I fully support traditional marriage. Unequivocally. The traditional family faces enormous challenges in America, and if elected I would vigorously oppose any effort to redefine marriage as anything other than between one man and one woman.

“I deeply respect, and share, Bob Vander Platts’ commitment to promoting the sanctity of marriage, a culture of life, and the core principles of the Family Leader’s Marriage Vow Pledge. However, rather than sign onto the words chosen by others, I prefer to choose my own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own.

“I respectfully decline to sign the pledge.”

Allahpundit wondered yesterday what Pawlenty would do after Romney’s more pointed refusal, and now we have the answer. Pawlenty seems less worried about enduring a contrast with Bachmann on this point than to strike a kind of “third way” tone between her and Romney.  At the same time, Pawlenty shrugs off the controversies that surrounded the pledge and makes an argument that he’d rather speak for himself.

If that sounds familiar, it should.  Pawlenty handled questions over Paul Ryan’s reform proposals in the same way.  Instead of playing follow another leader, Pawlenty praised Ryan’s efforts and direction, but promised to offer his own plan during the campaign.  In that exchange, Pawlenty said that if the Ryan plan came to him from Congress as President and not his own, he’d be happy to sign it, but he’d rather try his own plan first.  He’s going for the same dynamic here, supporting the principles while expressing them on his own terms.

It’s a smart play, but we’ll see if Iowa voters appreciate it, and if Vander Plaats will let Pawlenty slide and go after Romney instead.