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Rubio Is Endorsed By Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty


The Republican presidential candidates will be on stage for a debate tonight in Detroit. If you go by what voters are saying, Donald Trump is the clear front-runner. If, however, you listen to elected officials and others inside the party, the message is this is still a competitive race. We're joined in the studio by one prominent Republican. Tim Pawlenty is the former governor of Minnesota. He also ran unsuccessfully for the party's presidential nomination in 2012. Governor, good morning.

TIM PAWLENTY: Good morning to you.

GREENE: So you've been backing Florida senator Marco Rubio. Why Rubio?

PAWLENTY: I have. Well, in short, he's strong, but he's also informed, which I like. I like strength, but I like it to be informed strength. He's conservative, but he's also electable. He's also somebody who I think can not only unite the party, but he also can unite and excite the country because he not only talks about the American dream, but clearly his family story and his story - he's lived it. And talking about it and living are two different things.

GREENE: And we should say he did win your state.


GREENE: It's the only stare he's won so far.

PAWLENTY: Thank you for noticing that.

GREENE: (Laughter).

PAWLENTY: The North Star State gave his campaign a little ray of hope the other night.

GREENE: Can I ask you - you talk about strength - some of the Monday morning quarterbacking about your run for president in 2012 suggested that you missed an opportunity to be really aggressive on the debate stage when it came to going after Mitt Romney. And I just wonder - some have said that Rubio and the rest of this field could have been much tougher on Donald Trump on the debate stage and throughout this campaign so far. Do you agree with that?

PAWLENTY: Well, first of all, as to me, I think that's true. I had ran out of money, so I didn't have a chance to get a second or third look. In Marco's case, he gets a second or third look, and that's good because I think the more people see him, the more they like him.

I think people probably regret, now, that they weren't more aggressive with Trump earlier. But I think the thesis was - everybody's thesis was he probably wasn't going to last, and he'd kind of sputter out on his own. And of course, that all turned out to be wrong. So what we know now isn't what we knew then.

GREENE: Is there still time? I mean, he's won a lot of states. He seems to be the front-runner here.

PAWLENTY: Yeah. There's still time but not a lot of time. And so the next two weeks, obviously, are going to be critical with these big states of Florida, Ohio and others coming up. And so that'll be the tale of the tape, at least for how this heads next.

GREENE: What do you do if you're Marco Rubio on a debate stage like tonight? I mean, Donald Trump can certainly fire back and take you down. What do you do to not seem like you're being too aggressive in some way?

PAWLENTY: Well, I think Donald Trump is not the best debater. I mean, we've seen him do well on the stump. But when he gets into that debate, he gets flustered. He gets a little awkward. And you saw in his health care answer last time when they pressed him - can you be any more specific than the one thing about repealing Obamacare and the one thing about state boundaries, you know, being able to shop outside of your own state for health insurance? And he was unable to do that. So I think pressing him on even one more layer of detail on most of these policy issues puts him on the defensive because Donald Trump, sadly, hasn't taken the time to learn much depth on most of these issues.

GREENE: OK. Reality check - the candidate you're supporting has won one state, as we said. Donald Trump is the front-runner. If he does, indeed, get the nomination, can you support him?

PAWLENTY: Well, I always support the nominee. But in this case, I want to see who the nominee is. I believe that will be Rubio. I also want to see how whoever it is is going to behave between now and the nomination. So I don't want to pre-commit to somebody if they go out and do something even more spectacularly odd or troubling between now and the nomination. I will likely support the nominee, but I want to see what the behavior is between now and the convention.

GREENE: Voters - Republican voters are certainly saying something so far. The fact that Donald Trump has been so successful and is the front-runner - what message are Republican voters sending about who they want in a president?

PAWLENTY: Well, I think they're saying this - we want change. And I think, look, Republican Party has to be responsible for part of this because its leaders have been telling the activists for many years - we're going to do various things. We're going to cut taxes. We're going to reform entitlements. We're going to repeal Obamacare. And the list goes on. And they didn't get most of it done, so there's a frustration brewing, not just with the economy and lack of economic opportunity, but also with politicians flapping their jaw and not actually delivering. So I think part of it is, they see in Trump - notwithstanding the fact they may not agree with all of what he says - a strength that they think translates into action. I think Marco's opportunity and challenge is to show strength, but show responsible and informed strength because I think most voters, particularly in the Republican Party, want an informed leader and also conservative. I think they're going to call into question tonight in the debate - is Donald Trump really a reliable conservative?

GREENE: The state of Florida - the polls seems to be very mixed. It's Marco Rubio's home state. Is that his last stand? Does he have to win to stay in this race?

PAWLENTY: I don't know that it's his last stand. But I think he has said, look, he intends to win Florida. I think most people would candidly say that's an important watershed moment for his campaign.

GREENE: OK. We've been speaking with Tim Pawlenty, who is the former governor of Minnesota and also a former Republican presidential candidate. Governor, thanks for coming in. We appreciate it.

PAWLENTY: Happy to do it. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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