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Looking For Love In New Hampshire: Barbour And Pawlenty Take On Each Other -- And Themselves

First Posted: 04/19/11 11:47 AM ET Updated: 06/19/11 06:12 AM ET

Haley Barbour Tim Pawlenty

MANCHESTER, N.H. –- It's the difference between “Listen to me” and “Look at me.”

Watching Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty court voters in the Granite State is a study in contrasts -- and of two men wrestling with their own shortcomings as they pursue the 2012 Republican nomination for president.

Here comes Barbour: folksy, a little cautious in his first trip here this year but brimming with experience and savvy. There goes Pawlenty: his brow furrowed, looking a little distracted when it comes time to discuss the finer details of public policy.

The Mississippi governor’s events are pure retail politics. A house party, an appearance on the Charlie Sherman radio show, breakfast at a local haunt, a gun shop visit and a low-key stump speech in a run-down industrial park.

The former governor of Minnesota, meanwhile, steps into full-scale rally mode at two large events embroidered with stump speeches and media glad-handing.

Each of them has their burdens. For Barbour, 63, it’s his identity as a white, male conservative from the deep South. For Pawlenty, 50, it’s a perceived charisma deficit.

To overcome his challenges, Barbour knows he will have to visit New Hampshire repeatedly, courting voters and hoping they overlook the accent wrapped around his words. Pawlenty is reinventing himself as a larger-than-life Tea Party figure whose staff lionizes him with movie trailer videos.

The stakes are high. If frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, falters here, one of these two men could likely take New Hampshire and thereby make a serious bid for the nomination.

They enter the fray at a time when Republicans are caught between powerful cross currents: a push for a return to conservative orthodoxy mixed with with an equally strong desire to deny President Obama a second term. These two factors often seem to work against one another. Each candidate considered to have a serious chance of beating Obama -- Romney, Pawlenty and Barbour lead the pack -- has a blemish on his record he’ll have to explain to the Tea Party.

Whether Barbour or Pawlenty actually can snare the nomination remains an open question.

Barbour can fill a bigger war chest than Pawlenty. The elaborately networked politician has set a fundraising goal of $55 million for the primary compared to Pawlenty’s $25 million.

But Mississippi's leader hardly looks presidential. He’s a short, rumpled, good old boy, and his deep southern roots are his biggest challenge. Some in the GOP doubt he will run at all.

Pawlenty, on the other hand, looks like a commander in chief -- almost. But, plagued by doubts about whether he has true presidential charisma, he can come off like a stunt double rather than the genuine article.

Barbour’s thick accent removes all doubt that he is from the deep South. At Riley’s Gun Shop, the tale of a buddy’s complaints about a hunting obsession goes like this: “This turkey-hunting’s about to cawst me my jawb and rune my marriage.”

Cawst. Rune. Jawb.

“When you hear him, you know he’s not from around here,” said Kevin Smith, a square-jawed former state representative who now runs a family values political action group. “Northeasterners like people who sound like them, who look like them.”

On the stump in Nashua and in Concord, Pawlenty strained to reach an elusive, statesmanlike timbre despite his campaign's many trappings. Being loud and aggressive didn’t seem entirely natural to him, and locals here sensed the disconnect.

“Leadership isn't presented or spun. It's felt,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, who runs a conservative think tank in Manchester and who had breakfast with Barbour and a few others. “When people get to know you they can sense it. Or not.”

If history is a guide, grandstanding at big rallies is also not the way to win over New Hampshire’s famously skeptical voters.

“What it comes down to in New Hampshire is the retail politicking,” observed Smith. “It’s how you do in the house parties, the coffees, the one-on-ones.”

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