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Advice to Pawlenty: 'Chill out'

Introducing his 2009 state budget proposal early this year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty looks as serious as the numbers. A falling economy forced him to offer a tight budget.1 / 2
Professor Susanne Jones of the University of Minnesota watches a Tim Pawlenty television interview, and says he needs to "chill out" if he hopes to become an effective presidential candidate.2 / 2

Tim Pawlenty has a lot of work to do if he is to become president.

Of course, the Republican Minnesota governor who most political observers think is running for the White House must raise money. He needs to assemble a campaign team. He should prepare position papers on major national issues. And he has to court voters.

But even more important, he needs to make some personal changes, communication experts say.

One of those experts, Susanne Jones, was watching a video of Pawlenty delivering a speech and could not keep quiet: "Hold still, hold still," she shouted to the computer screen, which showed Pawlenty constantly moving, his head bobbing and hands waving to and fro.

"He makes me nervous," she said. "He does not calm me down."

Jones, who teaches how to effectively communicate as a University of Minnesota Communication Studies Department professor, said that Pawlenty does not project the image he needs to for a presidential candidate.

"The man needs to chill out," she declared. "Too much movement, too much fidget, too much eyebrow action; too many illustrators (gestures) and his hair is too long."

Politics aside, experts asked to look at Pawlenty agreed that while he is a physically attractive candidate, he is not ready for prime time.

"When you are getting on that national stage, a person's look, a person's demeanor ... for a lot of people, that is all they are seeing," said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor and Republican activist.

"When I listen to him, he comes across as a reasonable and intelligent person," Hagle said: "He can seem a little low key. I don't want to say bland."

But he meant bland. Several observers said that about Pawlenty's speeches and interviews, the two ways most Americans will learn about him.

Then there is his signature, a showy but undecipherable autograph that one handwriting expert said shows a bit of arrogance mixed with a tad of stubbornness.

Appearances, head movements and signatures may seem frivolous for someone who wants to lead the country. But ever since the first nationally televised presidential debate, politicians recognize that such issues may mean the difference between winning and losing.

If a candidate comes across well, "you are able to sell your message, whatever it is," said Hagle, talking from Iowa, where Pawlenty is expected to challenge other Republicans in the country's first presidential contest in early 2012. On Saturday, he addressed 700 Republicans in Des Moines, Iowa.

Policy arguments may never really be heard unless a listener, viewer or crowd member likes what he sees physically.

"We are in a tele-visual age, there is no question about that," said Edward Schiappa, the University of Minnesota's Communication Studies Department chairman.

Reporters who cover Pawlenty have noticed changes that make him more physically appealing over the past few years, changes ranging from whiter teeth to a series of new hairdos, including the dropping of a mullet.

"I don't know that I would call him a pretty boy, but I would call him attractive," Schiappa said.

Schiappa's overall assessment of Pawlenty? "He is vanilla with sprinkles."

That may not be as negative as it sounds on first blush.

Other candidates "are strong flavors that you either like or you don't like," Schiappa explained. So while politicians like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have some strong supporters, they also have turned off other potential backers.

"He does not immediately turn off a lot of people," Schiappa said.

Jones, who had not paid a lot of attention the governor before being asked to critique him, that he needs to take action soon, before too many voters make up their minds about him.

"People judge within 30 seconds," Jones said. "Within 30 seconds, a voter has decided how the voter feels about the candidate."

If Pawlenty continues his pattern of gesturing, that could affect his initial reception, Jones said.

Pawlenty's gestures do not match what he is saying, she said. For instance, in one speech Pawlenty called for immediate action, but instead of presenting a fist or other firm gesture, he slightly moved a couple of fingers.

Pawlenty is known for being a hit in small-group settings. People who have followed him on campaign swings that stop in places likes restaurants say that he has an immediate rapport with customers.

Jones saw that trait in photographs of Pawlenty meeting with veterans and farmers. He leaned forward, reaching out to people, and seemed more relaxed than in speeches and interviews.

Those are good signs for Pawlenty in Iowa and New Hampshire, where much of the early-season campaigning is on a small scale. And there is time to make changes.

"I was not sure Obama would win Iowa when he first started," political science professor Rachel Paine Caufield of Des Moines' Drake University said. "I think Iowans are very forgiving about style for the first six months, maybe longer even. We are used to some really green candidates."

Working the small crowds helps polish a candidate, and in Iowa there is a lot of opportunity for that.

More than half of Iowans met at least one candidate before the 2008 caucuses, most in small meetings.

Hagle suggested that candidates in Iowa can get along with a low-key style like Pawlenty portrays, but it helps if they have a "fire in the belly" like shown by another potential GOP contender, Newt Gingrich.

Perhaps even more important than his looks is his timing. It never is too early to begin an Iowa campaign.

"It helps to be on the ground now, but you are going to immediately rap up the effort following the 2010 mid-term" elections," Caufield said.

A signature tells some people as much about a candidate as his looks.

Pawlenty's signature is a couple of lines and a tiny dot for "Tim," an obvious P, then a line with a few curves and a T bar.

"When one cannot discern the name in the signature, it generally means that the writer knows who he is and if you don't, it is your problem," said Alice Weiser, a Houston, Texas, hand-writing expert and author. "Rather than be a clear communicator, he prefers a bit of showmanship."

Weiser said the T-bar stroke shows he is enthusiastic and the wide T bar indicates he likely is proud of his last name or heritage.

"I would say that he holds very firm to what he believes to be true and might also be a tad stubborn," she said.

A Web-based hand-writing analysis indicated the signature shows Pawlenty is trying to make himself more well known, but he still is not sure he is ready "for the grand stage or big league of public attention."

Davis works for Forum Communications, which owns the Woodbury Bulletin.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.