Pawlenty's Tough Ethanol Talk Could be Good for Primary Process

Pawlenty may take away a bit of power from the early states.

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Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be the craziest candidate to run for president in some time. Or, he may just be the bravest.

On the day of his official announcement that he is seeking the GOP nomination for president, Pawlenty went to Iowa and uttered the words many candidates may have wanted to say over the years, but suppressed in the interests of placating first-caucuses voters: [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

We need to phase out subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol. We simply can't afford them anymore. Some people will be upset by what I'm saying. Conventional wisdom says you can't talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street. But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead--I will.

This is a counter-intuitive approach. Will he go next to Nevada, railing against the gambling industry? And then to New Hampshire, where he could refuse to rule out tax increases? Then, he could go to South Carolina and argue for strict gun control.

Yet, maybe such talk--irrespective of the merits of the stances themselves--is just what the primary process needs. One of the reasons the rest of the country gets irritated with New Hampshire and Iowa’s insistence on hosting the first-in-the-nation primary and caucuses, respectively, is that the setup gives amplified attention to demands from those states’ voters. That would be ethanol in Iowa, and the no-new-taxes pledge in New Hampshire. The early states’ voters have a right to their issues, but they don’t have the right to make them litmus tests for a successful national campaign.

In critical ways, New Hampshire and Iowa make excellent venues for early presidential contests. Voters in both states take the roles very, very seriously. It’s like jury duty; voters feel obligated to actually show up and listen to the candidates, even those the political cognoscenti has decided in advance aren’t going anywhere. And the media markets are smaller and cheaper; one simply can’t buy an election in New Hampshire. There just isn’t enough TV time to purchase. Money matters, but candidates still have to show up and talk to locals if they want votes.

[ See a slide show of 10 issues driving Obama's re-election campaign.]

The Internet has changed the dynamic substantially; in the past, a candidate pretty much had to win or at least place well in the early contests to convince donors to send the checks necessary to get them to the next state. Now, a candidate can raise pots of money, very quickly, online, giving an extended chance to an expanded slate of contenders. Iowa and New Hampshire do an admirable job of vetting presidential candidates. But Pawlenty may take away a bit of their power.