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‘Sam’s Club’ voters called key to modern GOP

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NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

The man who's helping host the Republican nominating convention and is seen as a shortlist candidate for the vice-presidential nomination has a message for his party: Care about the Sam's Club voter.

Tim Pawlenty, the two-term Minnesota governor who endorsed Sen. John McCain early in the nominating process, said the economic ladder is secure at the bottom and the top but that voters are looking for leaders who can help Americans trying to work their way up.

"The party needs to modernize," Mr. Pawlenty told The Washington Times in a telephone interview Friday.

He stressed that modernization doesn't mean watering down conservative principles but rather finding new ways to talk to voters who are no longer impressed by invocations of the party's former leader.

"[Conservative principles] have to be applied to the issue of our time. I came of age during Reagan. I love Ronald Reagan. I think he's one of the great leaders of history, but a lot has happened since Ronald Reagan was president," he said. "It's a party that has been looking backward."

Mr. Pawlenty, 47, is slated to speak Wednesday at the National Press Club, where he plans to dissect the 2006 elections and the lessons his party can learn from the results.

He noted that the Republican Party adheres to the free market and must realize "we've been losing market share" and "our customers, namely voters, have been preferring the products of our competitor."

He said the lessons haven't been learned.

"There's still a fair amount of denial over it, or at least lack of full understanding of it, but the country has changed a lot," Mr. Pawlenty said.

He is making the pitch for Republicans to become the party of Sam's Club voters, or those demanding value for their taxpayer dollars. That means talking about issues such as health care, a longtime Democratic stronghold.

"They may always spend more money on it but that doesn't mean we can't compete in the arena of ideas about how to get better value out of it," he said.

He noted that the average worker changes jobs a dozen times and that voters may be attracted to a health care plan that would decouple insurance coverage from employers.

"This generation, my generation, and the ones behind me, are concerned about social mobilization. In other words, how do we maintain and preserve the American dream?" he said. "What are those steps we can take to help them up that mobility ladder?"

Asked about the gap between conservatives who advocate smaller government and those who say it isn't the size but the efficiency of the federal government that matters, Mr. Pawlenty straddled the divide, calling for slower growth.

"I think government is too big and it needs to be slowed down, and needs to be made more efficient," he said.

As Minnesota governor, he has closed a budget gap without raising broad-based taxes, though he did turn to some fee increases. Conservative groups gave him high marks early, though he has taken a dip on some ratings.

Mr. Pawlenty brushes away questions about becoming the Republican vice-presidential nominee. "All I say is that it's an honor to be mentioned," he said. "I have stopped engaging in the speculation."

Just in case, the governor's advisers have at hand a list of his foreign-relations experience. Mr. Pawlenty also seems practiced at attacking Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and bringing conversations back to Mr. McCain.

At the opening of a Republican Party headquarters in Iowa on Saturday, Mr. Pawlenty brought along a tire air pressure gauge to mock Mr. Obama's advice to consumers to keep their tires inflated to conserve gas. He called voting for the Democrat "the political equivalent of bungee jumping."

A day earlier, he observed the one-year anniversary of the disaster when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring more than 140.

The disaster was viewed as Mr. Pawlenty's equivalent to the Sept. 11 attacks. People who watched him in the days afterward said he reminded them of the resolve President Bush showed standing on the rubble pile in New York after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Mr. Pawlenty has been elected twice in liberal-leaning Minnesota, but never with the majority of the vote. He won in 2002 with 44 percent of the vote thanks to a strong third-party candidate, and held on to a 47 percent to 46 percent edge in his 2006 re-election bid.

As governor of Minnesota, Mr. Pawlenty is host to this year's Republican National Convention in St. Paul. He said it will be a chance "to update people's views of Minnesota."

Some pundits say the conventions have become stale. Last week, the Hill newspaper reported that Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Republicans running for House seats to skip the convention because it would be a "waste of time."

Mr. Pawlenty said voters still have reasons to pay attention because it's the first time the presidential and vice-presidential nominees have the national stage to themselves: "It's one moment where we ... kind of tune in and say we get the measure of the person."

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