- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — Tim Pawlenty on Monday cast himself as the Republican candidate willing to tell the country hard truths as he seeks the presidency, bluntly announcing in corn-dependent Iowa that its prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out.

“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,” Pawlenty told about 200 Republican activists and supporters in Des Moines in his first public appearance since officially kicking off his White House bid Sunday. “We simply can’t afford them anymore.”

The former Minnesota governor is using his first week of campaigning as an announced candidate to try to cast himself as a straight-talking Midwesterner, unafraid to consider drastic changes to sensitive spending programs in order to solve the nation’s fiscal problems. He faces several obstacles in pursuing the GOP nomination; he isn’t well-known nationally, ranks low in popularity polling and has been tagged by comedians and the chattering class as boring.

Pawlenty’s announcement came hours after Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels‘ decision against a bid jolted the GOP race and brought the field into clearer focus.

Pawlenty made fiscal overhaul the centerpiece of his announcement speech, and planned to not just challenge politically influential Iowans, but swing-voting seniors in Florida and wealthy bank executives on Wall Street.

“Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street,” Pawlenty said. “But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead.”

Pawlenty plans to outline a Social Security plan that raises the retirement age for seniors and requires means-testing for wealthier retirees.

The proposals are aimed at establishing Pawlenty as a candidate who levels with the American people, which he said President Barack Obama, whom he hopes to challenge next year, has not done.

“President Obama’s policies have failed,” Pawlenty said, delivering a speech and answering questions from the audience but not reporters. “But more than that, he won’t even tell us the truth about what it’s really going to take to get out of the mess that we’re in.”

Pawlenty acknowledged the political sensitivity of changing Social Security and eliminating ethanol subsidies.

“I’m not some out-of-touch politician from some other part of the country,” he said. “But even in Minnesota, when we faced fiscal challenges, we reduced ethanol subsidies. That’s where we are now in Washington, but on a much, much larger scale.”

As governor, Pawlenty played both sides of the ethanol issue. He angered farmers by pushing to trim subsidy payments to ethanol producers early in his first term. But he won their favor later by spearheading a drive to boost the amount of the fuel additive blended into each gallon of gasoline sold in the state. It must be 20 percent by 2013.

While the challenge to ethanol was a risk, Pawlenty made clear what Iowa means to his candidacy.

The setting for Pawlenty’s appearance — a sun-splashed rooftop terrace overlooking the Iowa Capitol — underscored how important the state’s leadoff presidential caucuses are to his bid as he tries to take advantage of Daniels‘ absence to position himself as the principal challenger to Mitt Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor lost his first bid in 2008 and again is seeking the nomination of a party that historically has nominated a candidate who had run previously.

Given an opportunity to go after Romney in a Monday morning appearance on network television, Pawlenty demurred, saying he’d prefer to talk about his own presidential traits than criticize others. He did acknowledge he probably wouldn’t be able to compete with the former private equity investment firm executive in terms of fundraising.

However, while criticizing Obama’s candidness about the depths of the nation’s fiscal crisis, he also subtly called on his would-be GOP rivals to be honest about the problems.

“It’s time for America’s president — and anyone who wants to be president — to look you in the eye and tell you the truth,” he said.

The appearance was one in a highly scripted, multi-format campaign roll-out that began Sunday evening with an internet video and continued Monday morning with Pawlenty’s appearances on all the network news morning programs. It is part of an 18-month ramp-up that began with Pawlenty’s first Iowa trip as a possible candidate, and is aimed at branding him as the fresh-faced, but tough-minded executive able to take on an incumbent Democratic president.

Pawlenty, who must win the party nomination before getting the chance to take on Obama, virtually ignored his GOP rivals in an announcement video, a column published in USA Today and his speech.

Pawlenty’s Monday visit was his 14th to Iowa since the 2008 election, more than any candidate except former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The little-known Midwesterner hopes an Iowa victory will give him a boost into next-up New Hampshire and beyond, a strategy that carries potential benefits and risks.

If he wins Iowa, as he says he must, Pawlenty could emerge as the chief rival to Romney, who lost the GOP nomination in 2008 and ranks higher in polls this year. If Pawlenty falls short, however, he’ll have to reevaluate the viability of his bid for the Republican nomination, despite the two years’ groundwork he’s laid in his neighboring state.

“In Iowa, he is all in. All his cards are right out on the table,” said Bob Haus, a veteran Iowa GOP strategist who managed Fred Thompson’s 2008 caucus campaign and is uncommitted for 2012.

Pawlenty has used his visits to appeal to many of the sometimes fractious segments of Iowa’s GOP base, seeking to compete for all parts of the party.

“He fits with the social conservatives, has the background of a budget cutter, and he’s strong with national security conservatives. Plus, he’s a good guy, and he’s here, working it,” said Richard Schwarm, a confidant of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a former state GOP chairman who so far hasn’t chosen a candidate to back in the caucuses.

Pawlenty appeared Monday on NBC’s “Today” show and CBS’s “The Early Show.”