Pawlenty hopes to turn bootstrap story to favor

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

ST. PAUL, Minn. — When Tim and Mary Pawlenty step out for date night, the fine dining can be a sandwich over a garbage can at a Minnesota Wild game. His ride since leaving the governor's office is a used Ford Escape. His house is a trim two-story like millions of others in American suburbs.

In a GOP presidential race peppered with millionaires, Pawlenty is the closest thing in sight to a regular guy — and it's a card he plays often.

Pawlenty will declare his candidacy in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa on Monday, an adviser told The Associated Press. The adviser, who disclosed the plans on the condition of anonymity, said Pawlenty will then head to Florida, New Hampshire, New York and Washington, D.C.

Pawlenty often tells his "American story:" a life that began in the meatpacking town of South St. Paul and continued through his dad's on-and-off work as a truck driver, the death of his mother to cancer when he was a teenager, and his bootstrapping through college and law school — the first in his family to go so far.

All of it is essential to Pawlenty's bid to be seen as the Republican best able to relate to the economic anxieties of Americans, perhaps the key issue in the 2012 race.

"I know that feeling, I lived it," Pawlenty intones in an introductory video that includes black-and-white shots of young Tim, stockyards in their heyday and a small-town Main Street.

He's stepped into some money-making ventures since leaving office. And a complete picture of Pawlenty's net worth isn't possible until he files federal disclosure papers this summer. But public documents gathered by The Associated Press suggest a man whose career as a lawyer and politician has made him comfortable but hasn't put him in the same league of wealth as his prospective rivals.

During Mitt Romney's first White House run, the former Massachusetts governor and ex-venture capitalist valued his wealth at $190 million or more. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China, is heir to a billion-dollar family business. Mitch Daniels was a top executive at prescription drug giant Eli Lilly and Co. before shifting his focus to public office, including two terms as Indiana governor. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has done well through book deals and ventures like a cable TV contract, helping him afford a million-dollar home and an appetite for luxury purchases like jewelry from Tiffany's.

Pawlenty's friends describe a guy who can't wait to change from a business suit into blue jeans and boots. As a legislator, he enjoyed late-night runs to White Castle for sliders; as governor, he couldn't resist bowling alleys and other recreational detours while touring the state on official business. At 50, he still doesn't miss a chance to hit the ice for pickup hockey.

"He wasn't born with a silver spoon," said longtime adviser Charlie Weaver, a former chief of staff. "He comes from modest means, still does for that matter. He didn't get rich as governor, that's for sure."

Pawlenty doesn't have a monopoly on a blue-collar narrative, but he's making heavier use of it than others.

"There is a perceived benefit, apparently, to painting yourself as just another average guy who's not rich — an outside-the-beltway, down-home, salt-of-the-earth candidate just like you," said Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

As Pawlenty presses the theme, it rings hollow with Tom Rukavina, a Democratic state representative who frequently sparred with Pawlenty over his conservative governance.

"To me he's the perfect example of a politician who forgot where he came from," Rukavina said. "He was raised in a union household; how many times did he stiff the unions? He was raised in a working class community; how many times did he stiff the working class?"

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