WEBSTER CITY, IOWA -- When George W. Bush came to Iowa in 1999 and named Jesus as his favorite philosopher, that statement helped boost him to a decisive win in this first-in-the-nation caucus state.
GOP 2012 candidate Tim Pawlenty is following Bush's playbook.
On Thursday, the former Minnesota governor listed Jesus Christ as one of his "political heroes" in response to a question from an Iowa voter about influential figures in his life.
Pawlenty first talked about his father -- "a big guy, a Polish guy, kinda joyful, strong" -- before listing others.
"I've got a lot of political heroes too," he said. "I love Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ." He said that he and his wife Mary "are people of faith and believers."
And then he weaved in a mention of the website PawlentyFaith.com, which he said is "dedicated to our view of our faith and how faith connects to the public square."
The setting for Pawlenty's comment was not as big a stage as Bush's in the 1999 debate. And the timing was less significant -- Bush's remark came a month before Iowans caucused, while Pawlenty is doing shoe-leather retail campaigning three weeks out from the Ames Straw Poll.
Still, it shows that Pawlenty is going out of his way to market himself to Iowa voters in an attempt to make up ground against Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), the Tea Party favorite who wears her faith on her sleeve and is currently positioned to win the straw poll. She is also polling near the top of the field nationally in some surveys.
Pawlenty is more low-key by temperament than Bachmann, but has stepped out his shell recently to talk about religion, a topic that's important to many conservative Iowa voters. He and his wife recorded a 6-minute video discussing their Christian faith, posted at the website Pawlenty mentioned.
Pawlenty, a former political operative, is no dummy. Typing PawlentyFaith.com into a web browser redirects computer users to a website titled action.iowastrawpoll2011.com, a page less about religion and mostly aimed at organizing support for the straw poll. The Pawlentys' video is posted prominently on the page, but the rest of the site is dominated by straw poll information and requests to join Pawlenty at the event.
It is that kind of outreach, combined with a tireless campaign schedule in Iowa over the next three weeks, that Pawlenty hopes will give him a strong showing in Ames. Many observers believe that if Pawlenty finishes worse than second, the results could significantly impair his ability to raise the money necessary to sustain his campaign's current size, and could force a downsizing of staff.