Tim Pawlenty's Ethanol Stance Boosts Him In Quest To Be Romney Alternative In 2012
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
WASHINGTON -- Following the official announcement of his presidential run, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has received a big boost largely because the position he took on ethanol.
Pawlenty drew praise from two very different bastions of conservatism, Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal, because he dared to go to Iowa and call for an end to ethanol subsidies.
"That's politically gutsy," said radio show host Limbaugh, during an interview with Pawlenty.
"It's notable -- make that downright amazing," the Journal editorial board crowed. "In refusing to stick to the script for candidates looking to harvest votes in February's Iowa caucuses, Mr. Pawlenty has passed an early test of fortitude."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also lauded Pawlenty. "I admire truth telling and T-paw sure did it to open his campaign," Bush wrote Tuesday on Twitter, referring to Pawlenty by his nickname and linking to the Wall Street Journal piece.
Pawlenty's position on ethanol paired a substantive policy position with a made-for-TV campaign announcement. It was also "brash," according to conservative columnist Jim Geraghty.
But it may be just the thing to galvanize grassroots conservatives and Republican party fundraisers and operatives. Many are looking for someone to present a bold -- and at least marginally exciting -- alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the current GOP frontrunner.
A top Republican party fundraiser said that the only challenge for Pawlenty is to ensure Jon Huntsman -- who was governor of Utah before taking the ambassador post in China -- does not catch fire in the aftermath of Indiana governor Mitch Daniels' withdrawal from the race.
Big money fundraisers "will look at either Pawlenty or Huntsman as most had already decided 'No' to Mitt," the Republican fundraiser told The Huffington Post. "The question is, Can Huntsman actually catch a wave? If not, Pawlenty will be the big beneficiary [of Daniels' decision not to run]."
Pawlenty has taken a few dings this week, giving an unconvincing explanation to Limbaugh about what he meant in 2006 when he said that "the era of small government is over" and that "government has to be more proactive, more aggressive."
He also got an extensive fact check from the Associated Press, which published seven assertions by Pawlenty that the news organization said were "not the whole truth."
Democrats spent much of the day Tuesday putting pressure on Pawlenty to say whether he supports Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget proposal that would drastically overhaul Medicare. Pawlenty has said he is going to release his own plan that is similar to Ryan's but not identical.
The dominant impression, however, was that Pawlenty was making great strides toward cementing his place as Romney's foil in the race for the GOP nomination.
Pawlenty expanded on his ethanol position Tuesday in a virtual town hall meeting on his Facebook page. Campaign staffers selected a question on the issue from someone named Henry.
"We've already received some questions," Pawlenty said, picking up an iPad while sitting in front of a window at an office building in Miami, with an American flag behind him and a bottle of water on the table to his right. "The first one comes from Henry, and he says, 'The position you announced yesterday on ethanol was courageous, and what the country needs to hear. What do the other candidates have to say about ethanol when they're in Iowa?'"
"Well Henry, I don't know the answer to that," Pawlenty said in response to his invisible questioner. "I'm not sure that they have weighed in about how they feel about ethanol in Iowa. I suspect that they'll be asked that in the coming days and months."
When he was governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty signed a bill in 2005 mandating that the ethanol requirement in gasoline be doubled to 20 percent by 2013. But he also cut state subsidies for the industry in order to close a budget gap.
In the town hall, made clear that he was not talking about immediately ending federal support for the ethanol industry.
"I know that the people of Iowa have invested a lot in the ethanol industry, as they have in Minnesota, so we'll phase it out over time," he said.
There is actually little daylight, rhetorically at least, between this position and that of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).
"Governor Branstad, like all Iowans, looks forward to the day ethanol is able to stand on its own, and believes we are closer than ever to achieving this goal. However, Governor Branstad does not believe taxpayer support should end abruptly, as was done with biodiesel, which severely crippled that industry," Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht told HuffPost.
Branstad wants to see "a well-thought, long-term approach to renewable fuels," Albrecht said.
However, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant told HuffPost that the 2012 hopeful's timetable does not envision a drawn out process. The subsidies should be wound down and eliminated over "a short few years," Conant said.