WASHINGTON -- Tim Pawlenty is smart, articulate and has a strong conservative record. He’s a super-nice fellow, supporters say, personable and down to earth.
But he's also kind of boring.
The former Minnesota governor and prospective GOP presidential candidate is well aware of what’s known as his charisma deficit and has done a few things to try to soup up his profile. He’s taken increasingly hard lines on controversial issues, arguing that Republicans should not raise the federal government’s debt ceiling and instead avoid default with deep spending cuts. He’s also gone out of his way to speak up in support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's showdown with public-sector labor unions.
Pawlenty has also amped up his stump speech, working to infuse it with more passion and provocative phrases. “The government’s too damn big!” he now tells people.
But he has also enlisted the help of one of the most talented young video specialists in the conservative world.
Lucas Baiano, a 22-year-old former Hillary Clinton supporter, is Canadian-born and dresses in perfectly-starched white shirts, slim-fitting sports jackets and tight designer jeans.
His job is to make Pawlenty appear larger than life. And he’s good at it.
“Lucas can make rather emotionless things emotional, so good for the rap on Pawlenty!” emailed veteran GOP admaker Fred Davis, who produced Carly Fiorina’s memorable "Demon Sheep" ad last year.
Baiano’s 90-second video for Pawlenty’s book tour, released in January, bears all the distinctive trademarks of Baiano’s style: stirring music that builds and builds; sound effects more often heard in feature film previews; perhaps most distinctively, a cinematographic style that mixes off-center head shots with herky-jerky behind the scenes moments, spliced with the clever use of iconographic historical footage, all edited so that the images come flying at you at a breakneck speed, providing an energy that combines with a more rhythmic overall pacing.
In short, it could be a political ad, but it could also be a trailer for something like “Independence Day.”
The media pickup of Baiano’s work has been outstanding, a Pawlenty spokesman said. The full Pawlenty ad was shown on Fox News the night it was released. Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert also showed it in a segment last week, which gratified Pawlenty aides even if much of Colbert’s routine mocked their boss.
After showing the 90-second ad start to finish, Colbert said, “Wow! Tim Pawlenty may not be running for president of the United States, but he is clearly running for president of the next 'Transformers' movie.”
“The epic scale of this thing is incredible. It makes Pawlenty seem almost life-size,” Colbert added.
Davis, who also produced John McCain’s “Celebrity” ad targeting Barack Obama in 2008, said that Baiano is “a great filmmaker, with quite a future out here in Hollywood once he tires of politics.”
Indeed, Baiano recently told The Huffington Post that he ultimately wants to make feature films.
Baiano is viewed as something of a one-trick pony by some veteran admakers who think he relies too much on imagery and slick editing. And his flamboyance appeared to irritate his superiors at the Republican Governors Association during his time there last year. Requests to talk to Baiano last year were repeatedly denied. Baiano’s Twitter and Facebook pages list him as still with the RGA, but a spokesman confirmed that he left in early February.
Nonetheless, it is rare and perhaps unprecedented for conservatives -- who generally lag behind liberals when it comes to cultural relevance -- to have a visual creative force like Baiano on their side.
Baiano made a big splash for the RGA last year, when he produced an 80-second spot titled “Remember November.” It began with audacious cinematic music and then launched into a hyperbolic and repeated slamfest of President Obama, using his “Yes we can” motto against him to criticize the way he and a Democratic-controlled Congress passed a sweeping health care overhaul in 2009.
The video drew some extra attention from some in the press who thought it was tapping into anti-government sentiment symbolized by Guy Fawkes, the British conspirator who in 1605 tried unsuccessfully to blow up Parliament and was executed for treason. Baiano, for his part, told Time last year there was no connection to Fawkes or the movie “V for Vendetta.”
As for Pawlenty, there is increasing recognition that he may be the GOP’s best option next year, in large part because he has the fewest weaknesses. Mitt Romney is deeply vulnerable on health care, Haley Barbour has significant image problems, and next to Mitch Daniels, Pawlenty looks like Bill Clinton.
Pawlenty has yet to break out of single digits in most polls, but if he does emerge and can make his way to the front of the pack in the coming weeks and months, Baiano’s work will be key in forming first impressions with voters encountering the former governor for the first time.
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This story originally identified Baiano incorrectly as 23 years old.