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Pawlenty isn't cool, but he's the real deal

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is low-key, restrained
  • He says Americans vote for presidential candidates with sizzle, but not steak
  • Pawlenty has not declared his candidacy but will be participant in debate, Navarrette says
  • Pawlenty the steak; presumptive GOP front-runner Mitt Romney the sizzle, he writes

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego (CNN) -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is soft-spoken, low-key and restrained in his rhetoric. Now, would that be any way to run for president?

It could be. By the time next year's election rolls around, Americans might be so fed up with the "cool" president and the blow-dried wannabe presidents that they might be in the mood for a dose of quiet competence. That would be a nice change. When hiring the leader of their country, and the most powerful person on the planet, Americans buy the sizzle -- not the steak.

You could argue that this has been true for more than half a century since John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in a televised debate in 1960. At least, so the story goes, folks who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy won; those who only heard it on the radio didn't.

But in the era of the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and social media, it's truer than ever: Americans respond to candidates with style, pizzazz and flash. So we shouldn't be surprised when candidates -- in the name of giving the customers what they want -- say and do outrageous things just to get their share of that one commodity that anyone thinking about running for president needs: attention.

In 1992, Bill Clinton played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show." In 2000, John McCain boarded a bus dubbed "The Straight Talk Express." In 2004, John Kerry, and running mate John Edwards, ducked into a fast-food restaurant for lunch -- with the media in tow. In 2008, Barack Obama danced on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

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And of course, in the most recent example of attention-seeking by a presidential hopeful, Donald Trump suggested that President Obama wasn't born in the United States. Trump got the attention, but he also got egg on his face this week when the White House released Obama's long-form birth certificate.

Before you know it, presidential aspirants will be juggling chainsaws while reciting the Gettysburg Address. All to get our attention.

By the way, this fits perfectly with America in 2011, which is a nation of narcissists running around yelling: "Look at me! Look at me!" So presidential candidates must yell even louder in a society where few of us are paying attention to politics because we're too busy paying attention to ourselves.

And into this carnival may soon step Pawlenty, who has not yet officially declared his candidacy but has committed to the first debate next month in South Carolina.

Pawlenty: I'm running

The former governor is light on sizzle but brings with him a meaty background. The successful and popular two-term governor is a darling of conservatives, and yet he managed to get elected twice in a famously liberal state known for putting Democrats in office. That shows he has crossover appeal. He also has legislative experience, having spent a decade in the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he eventually became House majority leader.

Pawlenty has a solid base of supporters in the GOP and has spent the past several years developing a national profile. In fact, he should, by now, be very well known in Republican circles. And yet, one imagines he still can't venture out in GOP receptions without a name tag that reads: "Hello, My Name is Tim."

Even so, don't count Pawlenty out. He might well be just what Republican voters are looking for, even if they don't know it yet. The recent decision by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to forgo a presidential bid next year could benefit the Minnesotan.

Borger: Republicans run away from 2012

Pawlenty would certainly love to inherit the support of anyone who was thinking about voting for Barbour, and he seems to be positioning himself as a viable alternative to the presumptive GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney. And there is certainly a need for an alternative. Despite placing well in a few polls, Romney has failed to catch fire with the Republican base. Some pundits blame his moderate position on abortion or that he signed into law a health care bill while governor of Massachusetts or that he doesn't connect well with the Tea Party.

But there is another explanation. Put yourself in the shoes of an average Republican primary voter. You don't like Obama, but more important, you don't respect him or trust him. You are baffled as to how a majority of Americans could have elected someone so unskilled at being president. Then, it hits you: Americans bought the sizzle, and they got burned.

Now you look at Romney, and there is not a hair out of place. Here's a graduate of Harvard Law School, seeking to replace another graduate of Harvard Law School. Romney is careful with what he says, to the point he often says nothing at all. Obama might be slick, but Romney is slicker. And if Obama at times seems arrogant, aloof and dismissive, well, that describes Romney's natural state. And you're telling me, all this is going to get you revved up to go to the polls and vote for Romney?

I don't think so. Tim Pawlenty may not be as glamorous as some of the others running for president next year. But he does appear to be authentic, capable and earnest. And, with those qualities in short supply in the world of politics, Republican voters might decide that this is just the ticket.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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