WASHINGTON - Tim Pawlenty may have finally figured out who he wants to be as a candidate.
The former Minnesota governor's six-minute video explaining the importance and impact of the Christian faith to him and his wife Mary is something new, and it gives voters a glimpse of something real and substantive about Pawlenty, while drawing contrasts with each of the other Republican candidates in the race.
The video, released Wednesday, comes at a critical time for Pawlenty, who has struggled for months to find his groove and now desperately needs a jolt of momentum with one month left before the Ames straw poll in Iowa, scheduled for Aug. 13. Some might see the release of the video, with its somewhat overwrought presentation, as a Hail Mary, but it will no doubt play well with the socially conservative Iowans who are active in the Hawkeye State's Republican party.
In certain ways, the topics addressed in the video are less than fresh: Pawlenty expresses his strong pro-life position and voices support for heterosexual marriage and religious freedom -- not exactly controversial stands with the GOP base.
But the video allows Pawlenty to decline to sign the 'vow' currently being circulated by a powerful Iowa social conservative leader, Bob Vander Plaats.
"I deeply respect, and share, Bob Vander Platts' [sic] commitment to promoting the sanctity of marriage, a culture of life, and the core principles of the Family Leader's Marriage Vow Pledge," Pawlenty said in a statement sent to reporters not long after his video was released.
Then Pawlenty pointed to the video as an explanation for why he was choosing not to sign the pledge: "However, rather than sign onto the words chosen by others, I prefer to choose my own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own," he said.
Pawlenty's evasion of the socially conservative pledge is an awkward moment for him, and it could be seen as another sign of weakness. But he is seeking to use it instead to draw a contrast with other candidates.
He makes clear early in the video that he thinks voters are due an explanation from him -- and from other candidates -- as to what exactly it is that they believe.
"When somebody is running for or holds high office, whether it's mayor, governor, or president of the United States, voters want to know, and deserve to know, 'Who is this person?' You know, 'What shaped their values? What are their values? Is this a person that's good to their word? Can we count on them?'" Pawlenty says in the video, aiming squarely at fellow candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who are both of the Mormon faith.
"And for me, my faith is very important to me. It influences all that I do and it informs people about what my values are. And of course that has a great bearing on how you conduct yourself in public office," he says.
Both Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to China, have taken pro-life positions and spoken in favor of heterosexual marriage, yet they have generally tried to avoid making social issues a focus.
Pawlenty draws a sharp contrast between their faith and his, making an explicit confession of Christianity. Speaking of his Catholic upbringing and journey into evangelicalism after meeting his wife, he discusses the way in which his faith helped him cope after his mother died when he was 16 years old. "Our faith is not in these earthly things, but it's in Jesus Christ," he says.
But Pawlenty is currently competing for the social conservative vote most directly with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), and how his call for clarity about religious beliefs will impact his attempt to overtake Bachmann in Iowa is less clear.
Bachmann is in very strong standing with many Christian conservative voters. Past statements by her and her husband Marcus about their views of homosexuality are drawing increasing scrutiny, and so Pawlenty could benefit if he is seen as a strong Christian who is less militant when he speaks about his faith.
There are also small touches that will play very well with Christian conservatives. For example, Pawlenty's wife Mary talks early in the video about how she often starts her day with a time of Bible reading and prayer, a practice that many devout Christians make a habit of.
The ideological meat of Pawlenty's statement in the video comes when he talks about the separation of church and state. The idea of separation, he says, was "intended to protect people of faith from government, not government from people of faith."
"And now we have all this revisionism around what was intended and where those lines really are drawn," he continues. "And I think the founders of this nation made it very clear. We were founded as a nation under God. It's not only in our founding documents nationally. It's in the founding documents of 49 of the 50 states."
This ties in to a closing argument that Pawlenty makes at the end of the video, sounding very much like a line soon to be featured regularly in his stump speech.
"I'm running for president because I love this country and I know it was founded under God, and I've got the record, the results, the experience, the leadership, the judgment and the values and beliefs to lead it to a better place," he says.
The key phrase: "I know it was founded under God."
It is Pawlenty's attempt to tap into the deep sentiment among many Tea Party voters that the country has lost its moral and religious compass, and that the solutions to its problems will require more than government programs.
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