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St. Paul, Minn. — On the same day that Gov. Pawlenty announced plans to study the Canadian reimportation issue, his phone started ringing. First, it was MSNBC, then CNN, the New York Times, NBC News, and C-SPAN.
Pawlenty proposes creating a state-sponsored Web site that would connect Minnesotans with pharmacies in Canada that could offer substantial discounts on prescription medications. The idea generated considerable attention over the last weeks, particularly as the Congress declined to open foreign drug markets to U.S. consumers in the recently-passed Medicare bill.
Pawlenty made the rounds of the major news networks. He took a well-publicized trip to Canada to promote his plan, and he testified before lawmakers in Boston and Washington.
There's so much cacaphony of noise out there, that even though Gov. Pawlenty's gotten on television, it's even been drowned out by Michael Jackson.
The issue has resonated strongly, particulary with seniors who often depend heavily on prescription medications. But it's also drawn stinging criticisms from Pawlenty's fellow Republicans and the Bush administration.
"We have received messages back from the FDA, from Health and Human Services, from the what you'd consider the pharmaceutical industry more broadly, various elements of the Republican Party, conservative interest groups, and down the list," he said.
Republican Vin Weber is a former Minnesota congressman who now runs a consulting firm in Washington. He represents the pharmaceutical industry, which strenuously opposes Pawlenty's plan. Weber, who is also a close friend and confidante of the governor's, says he disagrees with Pawlenty's reimportation efforts. But he says there's some attraction to Pawlenty's role as a party maverick who bucks his own president on some issues. And he says there's no serious doubt about the governor's conservative principles.
Weber says Pawlenty was already attracting GOP attention for being a Republican in an historically Democratic state and for holding the line on taxes despite the state's budget deficit.
"This is an attractive, articulate governor who has already gotten national attention on a couple of different issues. And he has people talking about him. And if he wants to try to advance that down the road, I'm sure he can," he said.
Other observers, however, say it's important not to oversell Pawlenty's star. Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, says Pawlenty may figure prominently in the Minnesota landscape, but on the national scene it can be tough to rise above the din.
"There's so much cacaphony of noise out there, that even though Gov. Pawlenty's gotten on television, it's even been drowned out by Michael Jackson, after all," Ornstein says.
Strategists closer to home say the main political benefit of the governor's drug plan has been to associate him with an issue important to seniors.
Wy Spano, a Democratic political consultant and co-editor of the newsletter Politics In Minnesota, says Pawlenty has used the prescription drug issue to skillfully guide the debate away from the effect of the administration's budget cuts.
"We don't think about the fact that he hacked all the budgets and took lots and lots of people's benefits or support they were getting from the state away. And some of those stories played, but essentially we're not thinking about that anymore," according to Spano.
Spano says the senior health care issue had largely been a DFL plank. He says Pawlenty's initiative -- and the Republican-negotiated Medicare overhaul approved this week -- are slowly shifting those dynamics.