Despite low polls, Pawlenty's political team turns insider headsby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Manchester, N.H. — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is back in New Hampshire today, as he travels the nation looking for support for a likely presidential campaign.
While he's not climbing much in public opinion polls, a lot of Washington insiders consider him a top contender for next year's GOP nomination. Part of the reason for that may be the team he's been quietly assembling to help him run for president.
"What's special about Pawlenty is he picked some of the best people early," said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics
Pawlenty has put together a much better campaign organization than almost any of the other 2012 GOP presidential prospects, he said.
"Pawlenty has a strong team. It is well respected and in some respects envied by the other candidates. It's really one of his hidden advantages," Sabato said. He's not a front-runner. He's relatively unknown. But because of his team he's well positioned. He could easily become one of the finalists for the Republican nomination."
Working for Pawlenty are several former high-level advisers to President Bush, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
See who's on Tim Pawlenty's Team »
One of McCain's top fundraising experts, Brian Haley, now serves as the finance director for Pawlenty's Freedom First national political action committee.
Senior advisers to Pawlenty include Terry Nelson, formerly the Bush-Cheney '04 political director, and director of political operations at the Republican National Committee.
Other top-level advisers are Phil Musser and Sarah Taylor. Musser was one of Mitt Romney's senior advisers during the last cycle. Taylor worked on the Bush campaign and served as Bush's White House Political Director.
Veteran Iowa Republican operative Becky Beach is not working for Pawlenty, but she said she knows the people on Pawlenty's Iowa team and she's impressed.
"I've know these guys for probably 15 years, and they're extraordinarily talented. And I think it says an awful lot about his judgment to hire good people like that," Beach said.
Beach handled George W. Bush's 2000 campaign field work in Iowa. She predicts Pawlenty will do well in her state thanks in part to the talent of the people surrounding him.
"They've got extensive connections not only to the major donors but to the grassroots," she said. "And, you know I think that says a lot."
In New Hampshire, Pawlenty has a former adviser to both of John McCain's presidential campaigns working for him now.
Many of Pawlenty's associates have deep roots in the Republican establishment. They're experts at old-school politicking. They know where to seek speaking engagements, who to court, and who to avoid. Pawlenty is also looking to the Internet.
Mindy Finn of the Washington, D.C.-based political new media firm Engage is behind Pawlenty's online strategy. Finn said Pawlenty has done more with new media than any of the other prospective 2012 candidates.
She said upwards of 75 percent of grassroots politics now take place online and that a strong new media presence is critical for any potential candidate.
"They're going to need to tap into the grassroots energy that will result in more money than they probably even expect and it can also be one of the very important ways to get their message out, to seed a message to start to build a narrative about who they are and why they're the one," she said.
In the last cycle, Finn headed up Mitt Romney's digital campaign. Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia said it's no coincidence Pawlenty's team includes former Romney staffers.
"Think of it this way, Romney is the front-runner, and it sure helps to have people who know the weaknesses of the front-runner if you're running against him," he said. "They known him. They know what he does well. They know what he does poorly and they know his Achilles heels."
Ultimately the candidate and not the team behind him will be judged by the voters. But staff is critical too and observers agree Pawlenty is making good choices.
- Morning Edition, 03/11/2011, 7:23 a.m.