07/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pawlenty to Emerge as the GOP's Most Prominent Clear-Eyed Realist?

Despite the hold that the Republican Party's rabid right-wing has on its party, there have remained a few notable clear-eyed realists who did their best to keep the GOP from continuing its migration into the political hinterlands. Most prominent among them were Republican governors Charlie Crist (FL), Jon Huntsman (UT) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (CA). While Schwarzenegger is constitutionally ineligible to run for president, many thought that Crist and Huntsman were considering 2012 bids of their own, and while they would not be the favorites of the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News-led crowd as a result of having the audacity to actually work with President Obama on the stimulus legislation, both would likely be strong contenders in a general election.

But beyond presidential aspirations, each of these men provided important voices (if only minority ones) for a political party now led by ego-driven figures like Newt Gingrich who sadly attracts disproportionate amounts of time on cable news and the Sunday shows to spew nonsensical rants that Sonia Sotomayor is a racist or that Obama wants to destroy capitalism to create a socialist nation.

However, now that Huntsman has joined the Obama administration as our next ambassador to China and Crist has opted to run for the U.S. Senate, there remains a glaring vacancy among possible presidential GOP aspirants who might assume that lonely moniker of clear-eyed realist.

Within a matter of weeks, I expect that Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) will make an attempt to step into that void and seize that role for himself.

Here's why...

As you probably know, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today on the efforts by former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) to reverse the outcome of Sen.-elect Al Franken’s (D) razor-thin victory in last fall's election and subsequent recount. Barring the unexpected, nearly everyone expects Coleman will be unsuccessful in convincing the state’s high court to overturn Franken’s 312-vote victory, with many believing that they will instead order the state's Republican governor to issue a certificate of election, thereby allowing the U.S. Senate to seat Franken and increasing the Democratic caucus’ majority to that crucial threshold of 60 seats.

While Pawlenty has been coyly noncommittal as to how he would respond to such an outcome, since Coleman has made clear his intentions of appealing any such loss to the federal courts and thus further delaying the seemingly inevitable. Nonetheless, public opinion polls make clear that a growing majority of Minnesota residents want Franken seated, and Pawlenty's job approval is already taking a noticeable hit from its once lofty levels.

Speculation abounds that Pawlenty will attempt to defy any effort by the state supreme court to certify Franken, and thereby ingratiate himself to the GOP's rabid base in hopes of being embraced as its 2012 standard-bearer. But I am more convinced than ever that Pawlenty will do just the opposite by signing the election certificate to seat Franken and use it to his advantage by sending a message to the GOP’s most vital voting bloc – independent voters – that he’s one Republican who still plays by the rules -- instead of engaging in nonstop political gamesmanship -- and he refuses to the walk the same gang plank now cluttered by many of his brethren by only acting to please that ever-dwindling number of Americans who consider themselves Republican.

Consider, as I’ve recently discussed, that if both political parties manage to secure the support of 90 percent of its base, the GOP would still be required to win independent voters by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in order to overcome the significant disparity in voter identification. Unfortunately for the GOP, those very independent voters, by wide margins, approve of Obama’s job performance, the Democratic Party’s agenda, and appear to loathe the mean-spirited and divisive rhetoric coming from today’s most prominent GOP voices, and cheered-on by its right-wing base.

If Pawlenty has presidential ambitions, the path now appears clear for him to take his experience as a successful two-term governor of a blue state and declare himself a member of the shrinking group of Republican leaders who remain rooted in a pragmatic, realistic, and less divisive philosophy.

While it may be a lonely place today, a competitive GOP will need to talk to voters outside of its rapid and largely Southern base. It is abundantly clear that the growing numbers of independent voters come predominantly from disaffected former Republicans who no longer approve of their former party’s message, strategy or leadership. If the GOP hopes to re-emerge in the short term as a national political party, it must – for starters – return these former Republicans back to their base, a task that a Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin seem utterly incapable of accomplishing on their own.

With the departure of Crist and Huntsman from the national scene, the time is right for an adult to begin start the process of righting the GOP’s ship. It may not happen before the 2012 elections, but if it hopes to survive as a national political party, it must halt its current slide into irrelevance and demonstrate to American voters (especially independents) that it is serious about the business of governing, wants to work with Obama to solve our pressing problems, and doesn’t simply view politics as win-at-all-costs, zero-sum game, that requires delaying, by any means necessary, the seating of senator in hopes of simply denying Democrats 60 seats in the U.S. Senate.

I suspect Tim Pawlenty will emerge later this month as just such a figure. Whether he’s capable of succeeding in the long run is entirely another story…

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "Pawlenty To Emerge As The GOP's Most Prominent Clear-Eyed Realist?"