— When you pick up a glossy, multipage color brochure at a presidential campaign event, you expect to see a candidate's image on the front. The ones stacked on a table inside the Sports Page Grill, where Tim Pawlenty is appearing this morning, do feature that sort of photo. But it's not of Pawlenty. It's of Barack Obama.
This choice does not reflect a heroic sublimation of ego. The headline on the flier reads, "Leadership isn't about fancy speeches and empty promises." Pawlenty wants to convey a simple message: He is nothing like Obama, and that's an excellent thing.
The candidate, who is spending the week touring Iowa in an RV, stands in front of a banner reading "Results. Not Rhetoric." The contrast highlights his strength, his record as a two-term governor of Minnesota, while reminding voters of the limits of oratorical talent.
"We got into this mess, in large measure, because we elected somebody as president of the United States who had no executive experience," he tells an audience of 40 people. "And then he went into the Oval Office, and we wonder why it's not working."
Voters who want a candidate to make their legs tingle, his approach implies, are welcome to go elsewhere. But those who want a candidate to get things done — conservative things — need look no further.
He recites his achievements: In Minnesota, he "took spending from historic highs to historic lows." During his time, it was one of the first states to implement merit pay for public school teachers. He curbed public employee compensation "before it was cool." He got reforms in state workers' health care coverage that empowered patients and reduced costs.
The list goes on, but the point has been made. "I'm not just up here flapping my jaws," Pawlenty informs the crowd. "I did it."
Believe it or not, his claims largely check out. During his time as governor, the state's spending growth, which had averaged more than 10 percent annually for decades, was cut to less than 1.7 percent. During a Twin Cities transit strike, he extracted significant union concessions on retirement benefits.
Not that he is beyond the usual feints and dodges. Asked what federal agencies he would eliminate, this implacable budget-cutter comes up with none. He blithely announces that "we can't let Iran have a nuclear weapon," without acknowledging that stopping it may require a major war with an uncertain outcome.
The broad theme of Pawlenty's "Road to Results" tour is directed at Obama. But it would work as well for some of his GOP rivals, particularly Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. A third-term member of Congress, she has never held an executive office, but her broadsides enthrall the party's most intense conservatives.
If Pawlenty hopes to succeed in the Iowa caucuses, he will have to overcome his fellow Minnesotan, who had 33 percent of the vote in Iowa in a recent poll, compared with 13 for him. But the caucuses are six months away, and Pawlenty knows some things that may explain his cheerful mien.
One is that Americans like presidents with executive branch experience. Of the last seven people elected president before Obama, each had been a governor or vice president.
Yet another is that the GOP candidates who stand farthest to the right are rarely chosen to lead. John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, the last four nominees, were merely conservative enough. These facts are also of great comfort in Mitt Romney's camp.
But T-Paw, as he likes to be called, has some other advantages that may pay off in the long run. He's relaxed and comfortable in front of a crowd — in a way the overeager Romney is not. His style is likely to wear well and make his often sharply conservative positions more palatable to independent voters.
It's hard to envision Pawlenty saying or doing something that would suddenly send his campaign up in flames. It puts no strain on the imagination to picture Bachmann doing that.
But his more placid personality should not be taken as moderation. He is a genuine conservative bent on turning the tea party's zeal into policies that would tightly constrain the federal government for decades to come. That accomplishment would not come without a long series of bitter battles.
Pawlenty's personality on the stump may come across as slightly dull. A Pawlenty presidency, rest assured, would not be.
Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman