Mitt Romney had a rough Tuesday night in Minnesota and Missouri, but former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent much of his evening in Lawrence defending the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
“He’s electable. If you look at the polling data, he’s clearly the strongest Republican to take on and hopefully defeat Barack Obama,” Pawlenty said in an interview before he spoke at the Dole Institute of Politics on Kansas University’s West Campus.
Before Tuesday night’s results came in, Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney last September after he dropped out of the race himself, even predicted a challenging night for the former Massachusetts governor in those three states, saying the votes were more symbolic with few delegates at stake.
“He’s got to go out and unite the Republican Party, but then he’s also got to get it excited and mobilized and energized,” the two-term Minnesota governor said. “He also has to go out and get the independent voters in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, and many other places like that. He’s up to that. He can do that.”
He touted Romney’s business experience, saying he would be best fit to lead in a tough economic climate, and Romney’s stint as a GOP governor in liberal-leaning Massachusetts, likening the experience to his own governorship in Minnesota, which hasn’t supported a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.
But even some staunch Republicans in the audience voiced concerns about Romney’s status as a frontrunner.
“I don’t see the vision. I don’t see where he wants to take us,” said Jim Mullins, a former Douglas County Republican Party chairman, “and I think that is a recipe for disaster.”
Another man asked Pawlenty why he thought Romney had trouble connecting with ordinary people.
Pawlenty said that seemed to be more of a media narrative and pointed to Romney’s performances in the New Hampshire and Florida primaries, saying he believed Romney would give the party its best chance to win independent votes, which would be key against Obama.
“We want the Republican Party to be excited and united,” Pawlenty said in his earlier interview. “That’s important, and I believe and hope that Mitt will continue to do that. But it’s also true that people can’t just focus on entertainment. We had candidate Obama, an incredible speech giver and orator, but that’s only one small part of being a leader and being president.”
When Dole Institute director Bill Lacy asked Pawlenty if he had any regrets about ending his own campaign too soon, Pawlenty joked: “Only late at night when I drink alone in my basement,” adding he regretted some tactical decisions he made causing his campaign to run out of money to go forward.
Pawlenty, who despite acting as a key Romney supporter, also said he had taken himself off the list of potential Romney running mates and even told Lacy he was happier volunteering for Romney than taking a Cabinet post in a Romney administration.
“I can’t afford that KU tuition on a Cabinet’s salary,” joked Pawlenty, whose daughter, Anna, is a KU freshman.