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New York, NY — Halfway through his two-day trip to New York, Pawlenty had an audition of sorts before a group that can make or break a candidate's future. The Club for Growth has poured money into races around the country, backing fiscal conservatives who support lower taxes and leaner government.
At an exclusive club in midtown Manhattan, Club for Growth members heard from a couple of congressmen who said the Club helped elect them. Then club president Stephen Moore introduced Minnesota's governor, praising him for erasing a $4.5 billion budget deficit.
"Tim Pawlenty has taken a chainsaw to that budget, and trimmed off all of the waste in the Minnesota budget. He is truly one of the rising stars in our party," he said.
Pawlenty told the group that what he'd thought was a $1.5 billion deficit during his campaign for governor turned out to be triple that after he was elected.
"But took a pledge during the campaign to close that budget without raising taxes. It did not come easy, we have a culture in Minnesota, a political culture ... the idea of having to slow down spending is a difficult thing, but we did it, and we just closed fiscal year 2004 with a positive balance, and $630 million of reserves established, so we're proud of that work," Pawlenty said.
After his warm reception from the Club for Growth, Pawlenty told reporters that he's not in New York to float his name for higher office. He says he hadn't heard of the Club for Growth until recently, and he's making the rounds with the national press to talk Minnesota policy, not politics.
"What we're trying to do is promote Minnesota and what we're doing in Minnesota, and educate people who are the observers, the writers, the commentators that they need to update their thinking about Minnesota," according to Pawlenty.
Pawlenty says the payback is that those journalists will write more informed stories about Minnesota. Pawlenty may not be thinking about a future national bid, but club president Stephen Moore says he should be.
"What this meeting really measured was how he has become, on the national stage, one of the five or six Republicans who is most admired in the country, in terms of the governors that we have right now, and that's saying a lot because the Republicans have 26 governors," he said.
The Club for Growth and other conservative groups will be watching Pawlenty to make sure he sticks to his "no tax increase" pledge. He's starting to prepare his budget for 2005, and it's likely to be another contentious one, with a projected deficit that could reach $1 billion.
Democrats say Pawlenty has already cut essential services and eroded the state's quality of life.
Political scientist Steven Schier of Carleton College in Northfield says Pawlenty's political future will hinge, in part, on how he deals with the budget and other challenges as governor.
"It's a delicate balance, you know, you have to keep your current constituents happy while you keep your eye on future opportunities. And I think the one way to solve the problem of future ambitions is to do your current job well in a policy and political sense," Schier said.
While Pawlenty has gotten a lot of attention in conservative circles for his budget balancing, he's also butted heads with conservatives on other issues. His push for reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada has come under fire from the Bush administration, and his effort to kick-start the Northstar commuter rail line has angered many Republican lawmakers.
But Pawlenty isn't hearing any criticism while in New York. He got a standing ovation when he spoke to Republican delegates from Minnesota, Colorado and New Hampshire on Wednesday.
New Hampshire delegate Jim Hardy says Pawlenty made a good first impression. Hardy says he's heard some buzz about Pawlenty.
"Minnesota politics: you think Democrats and things like that. But Gov. Pawlenty, Sen. Coleman, have turned the tide over there. So yes, the news has made it to New England," Hardy said.
New Hampshire is the state that holds the first presidential primary each year. And already, many 2008 hopefuls have been visiting delegates this week. Potential contenders being talked about include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Pawlenty will wrap up his trip to New York with a series of media interviews, and will leave before President Bush speaks to the convention. He wanted to get back to Minnesota in time to do his radio show from the state fair - the only other place for a Republican politician to be this week.