Consensus forming around Pawlenty?

While the Romney campaign rushed yesterday to reassure Republicans that it takes Marco Rubio seriously as a running-mate contender, two new stories overnight appear to indicate that the focus has shifted to another candidate.  Both the Wall Street Journal and Politico report from their sources that Tim Pawlenty has emerged as a front-runner for the VP slot, and that Pawlenty’s middle-class appeal might be his most attractive aspect for Mitt Romney.  His surrogate appearances have drawn rave reviews within the campaign, a theme found in both reports:

WSJ: Meantime, attention increasingly is turning to Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and onetime Romney primary-season foe. Of elected officials who joined Mr. Romney in a recent six-state campaign tour, Mr. Pawlenty stood out to party leaders as they handicapped who might be chosen to join the GOP ticket.

Privately, some Romney campaign officials have offered that Mr. Pawlenty has impressed them with his work as a Romney representative on the campaign trail and with the press. “He’s never done a bad interview” while acting as a campaign spokesman, said one Republican operative.

Politico: Tim Pawlenty has jumped to the top of the vice presidential shortlist of several Mitt Romney advisers after emerging as the most effective — and well-liked — surrogate for the GOP nominee-to-be, according to several Republicans familiar with campaign deliberations.

The former Minnesota governor has impressed top Romney officials with his winning onstage presence at a grueling roster of Republican events throughout the country and with his low-maintenance personal style that has made him a favorite with the campaign’s tight-knit inner circle at the Boston headquarters.

And both note that Pawlenty’s humble background and solid middle-class status could help buffer some of the expected class-warfare attacks from Barack Obama:

WSJ: Moreover, Mr. Pawlenty’s background as the son of a truck driver from South St. Paul, Minn., is a potential counterweight to Mr. Romney’s wealth. The former governor also could help Mr. Romney in the battleground states of Minnesota and neighboring Iowa, both of which the campaign sees as potential pickups from President Barack Obama’s 2008 column.

Politico: Several top Republicans said that as the hockey-playing son of a blue-collar worker, and a longtime champion of connecting with what he has called “Sam’s Club Republicans,” Pawlenty would be comfortable campaigning among working-class voters in a way that Romney never will be.

Politico also points to Pawlenty’s evangelical Christian faith as another plus for a Republican ticket, although I see that as less of a distinguishing feature.  Most of the other candidates for the position are either evangelicals or Catholics (Rubio and Bobby Jindal specifically), and either would suffice for that purpose.  A Catholic might be an even better reminder of the attack on religious liberty launched by the Obama administration via the HHS mandate.  Pawlenty keeps his faith low key but does discuss it comfortably on occasion, which may come in handy in the next few months.

In many ways, Pawlenty is a traditional running-mate option.  He carries some geographical heft in an area where Romney needs to compete (the Midwest, especially Iowa and Wisconsin), has a, er, sterling resumé as a two-term Governor of Minnesota, could take over the top job in a heartbeat if necessary, and won’t overshadow the nominee on the campaign trail.  Having watched Pawlenty up close as a chief executive for eight years, I know he’s a highly competent and tough campaigner, even if he did make the mistake of going all-in too early in Ames, Iowa last year.  He connects with people better than Romney does, and after having had to fight a Democratic-controlled legislature for the last four years of his term as governor, knows how to fight and win on legislative matters, perhaps also better than Romney does.

Pawlenty isn’t the only candidate who fills these needs, of course.  Most of the same arguments could be made for Bobby Jindal in Louisiana, for example, and probably Bob McDonnell in Virginia.  Conservatives would probably like Jindal more than Pawlenty.  But if the reports are true that Pawlenty has risen to the top of the heap, it tells us that Mitt Romney no longer thinks that he needs a game-changing running-mate selection to beat Barack Obama in November.  That may also be the message behind what looks a lot like a trial balloon from Team Romney — a message of confidence and command.