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Will currying favor with religious right help Pawlenty in 2012?

Pawlenty-80_332.jpg
Pawlenty-80_332.jpg

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty has spent the past few weeks trying to curry favor with a slew of conservative religious figures, some so extreme they’ve been labeled “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s gone public about his plan to reinstate of the military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers if elected president and claimed that America was founded “under God.” While Pawlenty has always been a social conservative, he hasn’t worn it on his sleeve this prominently. But will these new friends help or hamper his likely 2012 bid for president?

This week Pawlenty kicked off a series of presidential forums in Iowa with The Family Leader, a controversial conservative group that calls homosexuality a “public health crisis” and teaches “gay sex kills.” He also appeared on the radio show of Focus on the Family to talk about the Christian founding of America.

But perhaps the biggest turn to the right came in January when Pawlenty appeared on the radio show of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (AFA). Fischer is known for making incendiary comments that have landed his group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s anti-gay hate groups list.

In the past week, Fischer has courted controversy: On Saturday he appeared on the radio show of Bradlee Dean of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International ministries to say that “homosexuals” were responsible — at least indirectly — for the Holocaust. And on Tuesday, Fischer said that “many of the tribal reservations today remain mired in poverty and alcoholism” because Native Americans refuse to embrace Christianity.

To Kyle Mantyla, senior fellow at People for the American Way, it’s disappointing that Pawlenty is giving Fischer legitimacy, but it’s also not surprising.

“I’d like to say that it is remarkable that someone who is planning on running for president would agree to associate with the likes of Fischer, but the fact of the matter is that Fischer is a perfectly ‘respectable’ leader within the conservative, religious right movement,” he told the Minnesota Independent. “What would truly be remarkable is if someone like Pawlenty actually had the decency and courage to stand up to Fischer and refuse to tolerate and legitimize his unrelenting bigotry.”

Mantyla has been following Fischer’s career and his controversial remarks at Right Wing Watch for several years.

“Sadly, Fischer’s open bigotry against gays and Muslims is common within the religious right and perfectly acceptable to the conservative movement as a whole,” he said. “As such, Fischer is a regular participant at religious right events where he is often given a prominent speaking slot from which to spread his views, and Republican members of Congress regularly appear on his radio program.”

Though Pawlenty continues to court those whose views many find offensive, one of his challengers doubts he will go far enough to succeed. Rick Santorum told columnist George Will last week that he “doubts that Pawlenty has the passion requisite for connecting with values voters.”

For the Minnesota Republican, it’s a double-edged sword. He needs strong support from the religious right — including those who hold views many find offensive — in order to break out of the pack to win the GOP nomination. But, if he goes too far, it could turn off the moderate voters he’ll need to woo in a general election.

Hamline University political scientist David Schultz said Pawlenty “definitely has to start drifting to the right.”

“Where the real momentum is in the Republican Party is on the right,” he said in an interview with the Minnesota Independent. “The party is being pulled by the conservative tea party wing; they are really driving it, especially in Iowa.”

Schultz mentioned a recent graph created by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight which showed Pawlenty dead center among all the presidential candidates in terms of conservatism and party insider status, not a good place for a candidate who wants to stand out. Contrast that with Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan rumored to be running in 2012. She sits on the far right side of the conservative spectrum and has hooked herself into the tea party movement.

“Pawlenty has to go to the right to find a narrative. He’s forced to, I think. He is a Reagan Republican in a party that has rebranded itself in a Palin-Bachmann-tea party manner, and he’s trying to rebrand himself to be part of the new wave when, in fact, he’s not a part of it.”

Bachmann, he said, faces a different problem in that her far right views might make her extremely popular with the base but not with a general election voter: “If somebody like Bachmann nails the nomination, how does she then turn on a dime?”

And that’s a problem Pawlenty could face as well if he tracks toward the extreme right in order to shore up a lackluster campaign, but can’t pivot in the general election.

In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson mainly because the Democrats were successful in branding him a right-winger. Schultz says the 2012 election could shape up the same way if the GOP continues to lean right and President Barack Obama gains centrist credibility.

“Obama has reinvented himself as a centrist,” Schultz said, adding that the GOP could fracture during the nomination battle. “One question is: Does Bachmann run as an independent if she doesn’t get the nomination?”

Obama is no stranger to controversy surrounding religious associates. His former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a campaign issue in 2008 when some saw his sermons to be extreme. Obama had to distance himself from Wright. Will Pawlenty need to do the same?

Perhaps, but so far he doesn’t seem to be. Pawlenty has defended Fischer and other SPLC-dubbed “hate groups,” and in Iowa earlier this week, he was asked by reporters about the designation of several religious right groups as “hate groups.”

“I certainly disagree with the notion that the… Family Research Council is a hate group,” Pawlenty said at a Feb. 7 Iowa City press conference with The Family Leader’s Bob VanderPlaats. “I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is out of line for coming to that conclusion.”

And late last year, Pawlenty signed an open letter saying that the SPLC was attacking groups “that uphold Judeo-Christian moral views, including marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

His letter did not address the claims that the SPLC made in designating those organizations as hate groups — that they intentionally spread falsehoods about Muslims, LGBT people, Native Americans and other Americans.

Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent contributed to this report.

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