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Back Channels: In Minnesota, a possible N.J. blueprint

It's been entertaining to watch the Sunday-morning GOP mosh pit, with Republicans careening into each other, trying to bump the unworthy off the dance floor.

It's been entertaining to watch the Sunday-morning GOP mosh pit, with Republicans careening into each other, trying to bump the unworthy off the dance floor.

But if the party is to have a future, actions will speak louder than TV words. Actions in state capitals, and in the voting booths Tuesday in New Jersey.

Let's start in Minnesota. Lawmakers in St. Paul, like their counterparts across the country, have been wrestling with a deficit, in this case about $4.6 billion over two years. To fill the hole, Democrats who control the Legislature wanted to raise taxes - income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, alcohol taxes, cigarette taxes.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty said no, not in this recession. Period. He meant it.

When the Legislature sent him a plan for $1 billion in new taxes May 8, Pawlenty vetoed it.

Democrats hoped to override with the help of a few Republican lawmakers, as had happened last year with Pawlenty's veto of a gasoline-tax increase. But this year the GOP backed the governor.

At midnight on May 18, as the regular session was ending, Democrats rammed a similar bill through the legislature, prompting Veto No. 2.

All right, some Democrats thought, let the term end and the governor will call a special session to deal with the budget crisis. We'll give a little on spending, he'll give a little on taxes. Business as usual.

Nope. Here's what Pawlenty said on Fox & Friends on May 21: "The legislature went home for the year, thank goodness. And instead of calling them back to have a summer-long fight about the budget, I'm going to take the steps, as conditions warrant, to shave down the budget to get it back in balance."

He has already used his line-item veto power to slash about $400 million from the budget, the biggest chunk of that coming from medical assistance. Next, he plans to use the Minnesota governor's "unallotment" power to keep cutting.

Some Democratic critics see this as "King Tim" playing up to conservatives nationally in advance of a run for president in 2012. But Pawlenty has always advocated fiscal responsibility, even when Republicans in Washington were faltering on that issue. When Pawlenty was first elected governor in 2002, Minnesota faced a $4.5 billion deficit. He helped turn that into a $2.2 billion surplus without raising taxes.

But the fiscal conservative is also a bit of a populist, so he might not fit any of the Sunday talk-show molds being espoused for the GOP. Pawlenty has urged Republicans to reach out, become "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." This son of a truck driver is comfortable pushing education reform, a clean environment, and energy independence. To lower health-care costs, he backed the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, even though the Bush White House insisted the drugs couldn't be proved safe. Pawlenty famously replied, "Show me the dead Canadians."

And now, amid the worst fiscal crisis in decades, Pawlenty again rejects business as usual. Instead, he will try to do the responsible thing that governors and lawmakers from Trenton to Harrisburg to Sacramento have deemed impossible: cut the budget - not just reduce the growth of spending - without raising taxes.

It may seem radical to some, but Pawlenty is merely applying the same budgeting principle to government that families use every day: If there's less income, you cut spending. The focus is on what you have to have, rather than what's nice to have, as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney put it in his endorsement last week of Christopher J. Christie, the front-runner in the GOP primary for New Jersey governor.

In that sense, Pawlenty's approach gives Jersey voters a preview of what might happen under a Gov. Christie, who has also promised an aggressive use of the veto pen to sharply reduce spending. Of course, it's too soon to tell how the Minnesota budget saga will end, or whether Pawlenty will be the villain or the hero. It will depend on voters. Do they really want to cut taxes and spending? Or do they want lower taxes and more government services, regardless of recessions or long-term deficits? Will they applaud a balanced budget only until a cut hits too close to home?

If Pawlenty is successful, and voters approve of the results, that will be a boost to would-be budget cutters like Christie, who warn that further tax increases, as advocated by Democratic Gov. Corzine, will chase away more taxpayers and businesses, delaying a recovery and pushing the state toward a Californialike economic collapse.

And if - big if - both Pawlenty and a Gov. Christie can pull all this off in deep-blue states, their actions will drown out any Sunday-morning chatter about the future of the GOP.