Minn.'s Pawlenty gazes south at Iowa as 2012 loomsby Brian Bakst, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. (AP) — Republican Tim Pawlenty lacks Sarah Palin's pizazz, Mitt Romney's bucks, Newt Gingrich's connections and Mike Huckabee's religious pedigree. What Minnesota's governor has to boost his national political aspirations is a shared border with Iowa, the Midwestern state that helps shape presidential races.
Geographic proximity is no guarantee of success, but it can be an asset - from a firm grasp of shared concerns to a sense of cultural camaraderie to quick access for campaign pop-ins.
Other Republicans looking at the 2012 race could lean on their own neighbor dynamic in key states in the party nomination process. New Hampshire abuts Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and South Carolina borders Georgia, where former House Speaker Gingrich made his political name.
Pawlenty trades on his next-door neighbor status this weekend during his third Iowa visit as a prospective presidential candidate, with two more trips already scheduled.
In his debut appearance last November, Pawlenty sprinkled mentions of hunting and agriculture into broader remarks about the nation's direction.
"Minnesota and Iowa have a lot in common. We're a state that if you drive across the Minnesota border into northern Iowa, you really can't tell that you're in a different state in a lot of ways," he told the state Republican Party dinner. "We've got these common values, these common traditions and these common perspectives."
The three-day trip that begins Saturday will be Pawlenty's first sustained visit and involves raising money and stumping for GOP legislative candidates in eastern Iowa. He's due to return in two weeks for more networking and intends to fit in a stop at the state fair.
Face-to-face campaigning is paramount in Iowa, which traditionally holds the caucus that starts the nominating process. Caucus faithful expect to size up candidates personally, said Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn.
"What you don't get here is a star-struck electorate because the activists are used to having the candidates and eventual nominees in their co-ops, in their living rooms, in their coffee shops," Strawn said. "You just can't buy a bunch of television ads and radio ads and expect that to be successful."
For White House hopefuls, time is precious. Finding nonstop commercial flights to Iowa can be tricky and few national aspirants can afford private jets early on.
From his suburban home's driveway, Pawlenty is two turns and 99 miles from the Iowa border.
While Pawlenty wouldn't qualify as widely known in Iowa, there is some familiarity with the two-term governor.
He topped the list for the Hamilton County GOP as it recruited a headliner for this October's chili supper, an event organizers expect will to draw hundreds.
"When we were talking about someone we would like to see, he came to mind," said Leah Maass, the co-chair of the county's Republican central committee. "He's a Midwest guy. You have got to like Midwest people."
But that regional affinity hasn't always translated into victory.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama steamed to a Democratic caucus win in 2008. Former Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt abandoned his presidential bid four years earlier after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the state's Democratic race, failing to replicate the 1988 Iowa victory in his first run for president. (Another neighbor, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, finished second to Gephardt that year.)
Republican Sen. Bob Dole, whose home state of Kansas is a slight jog from Iowa's southern border, came out on top in 1988 and 1996 after a seventh-place finish in 1980.
Minnesotan Walter Mondale, a former vice president and senator, scored a decisive win in Iowa in 1984 en route to the Democratic nomination.
David Lillehaug, an aide who traveled with Mondale that year, said the candidate benefited from fleets of volunteers from Minnesota who took part in weekend "Fritz Blitz" events in Iowa.
"People would get on the buses, go down and door-knock for the weekend," Lillehaug said. "Voter-by-voter identification is the key to that caucus."
Romney's proximity to New Hampshire proved to be no advantage in 2008 during the first-in-the-nation primary.
He was able to slip easily across the border and speak of local landmarks as owner of a vacation home on Lake Winnipesaukee, but he lost the primary to eventual GOP nominee John McCain. McCain had endeared himself to Granite State residents in 2000 with his maverick campaign - and primary win - over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Nonetheless, Romney has laid the foundation for a second New Hampshire campaign, as he has done in Iowa, South Carolina and other key states.
He was in New Hampshire twice in April, signing copies of his new book and appearing at St. Anselm College, a time-honored politics breakfast and at the Union Leader newspaper. He's the featured guest at two local events in August: a fundraiser for House candidates and for the state GOP.
Back in Iowa, state Senate candidate Bill Dix is getting a helping hand from Pawlenty this weekend. He thinks Pawlenty stands to reap advantages from his geographic closeness, but still needs to prove he is "the person for the job at the time" if he runs in 2012.
"That comes from being inspiring, listening and getting the right people behind you," Dix said. "Those aspects don't go away simply because you're the local guy on the block."
Associated Press writer Glen Johnson contributed to this report from Boston.
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