By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL -- A soft-spoken John McCain answered Minnesotans' questions for 53 minutes Thursday night, telling them the Iraqi war is going well and that he is not ready to say if Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be his running mate.
McCain, in a town hall meeting with what his campaign called 250 undecided voters, said he is an independent politician.
"I was not elected again this year Miss Congeniality of the U.S. Senate," he joked, saying that among the issues he fought was spending wanted by fellow GOP senators.
McCain reminded the audience that he went to corn-heavy Iowa and said he does not support ethanol subsidies and he went to South Carolina and told them their textile mills are obsolete.
He took on President Bush's early Iraqi war strategy: "It was a terribly flawed policy."
The Republican presidential candidate's town hall meeting -- his preferred method of campaigning -- stood in stark contrast to a June 3 rally Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama held that drew 30,000 to a venue two blocks from St. Paul's Landmark Center, where McCain answered questions Thursday night.
The McCain campaign said most people in the audience were undecided voters, with some supporters in the wings. And while many applauded McCain, others remained silence. One questioner admitted to being a strong Democrat.
McCain, who opened the meeting with a 20-minute speech, said he wants to face Obama in a series of similar town hall meetings, an offer Obama has yet to accept.
The Arizona senator did not publicly answer the question whether he is considering Gov. Tim Pawlenty as a running mate.
"I believe that Gov. Pawlenty is the next and new generation in our party," McCain told the last questioner, who wanted to know the governor's vice presidential chances.
"I wouldn't like to speculate who the vice presidential candidates are, but I know he has a place in the future of this country," McCain added.
Pawlenty, a co-chairman of McCain's national campaign, has been traveling the country in recent months for McCain and other Republican causes.
The governor called McCain a candidate of honor and courage.
"We need that type of person now more than ever," Pawlenty said.
McCain tackled the Iraq war before questions began.
"We are winning in Iraq," he declared. "A lot of people don't like to say that, but we are winning."
McCain has been criticized for saying he would not object if American troops remained there 100 years.
"If they (terrorists) were done, I would say come home immediately," he said. "We will come home with victory and honor."
McCain continued his energy week theme, saying he wants nuclear power to return as an electricity source. At the same time, he added, waste nuclear material should be reprocessed to become new fuel as is done in other countries.
Much of the discussion surrounding McCain's visit centered on Pawlenty's prospects. A national political writer fueled the flames earlier Thursday.
"We may be at the flavor-of-the week point in the vice presidential sweepstakes, but that flavor right now for Team McCain is the environment-loving, hockey-playing governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty," U.S. News and World Report's James Pethokoukis wrote. "That tidbit is courtesy of a high-ranking McCain campaign official and reflects what I've been hearing of late among GOP activists."
Pawlenty continues to tell Minnesota reporters he has not talked to McCain about running for vice president and said he doubted he would be asked.
The DFL Party chairman said he wants to know if Pawlenty would resign if he runs for vice president.
"As Minnesota has slipped further into recession, Pawlenty's 'aw-shucks' act has worn thin," Chairman Brian Melendez said. "Minnesotans have a right to know whether he's interested in sticking around to solve their problems or whether he has one foot out the door -- and whether he views the governorship as a full-time or a part-time job."
In the spring of 2006, when he announced he was running for re-election, Pawlenty told reporters he would serve out his term. But he has been less firm on that issue in recent months.
Pethokoukis said it makes sense to pick Pawlenty because he could help bring Big 10 Conference states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the McCain camp.
Winning such electoral-delegate rich states could give McCain an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, Pethokoukis said.
"Internal McCain polls show that adding Pawlenty, 47, to the ticket would help McCain win not only Minnesota but also the neighboring state of Wisconsin," Pethokoukis wrote. "Both are close swing states. In 2004, John Kerry beat President Bush by 3.48 percentage points in Minnesota and 0.38 percentage point in Wisconsin. In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush by 2.4 points in Minnesota and 0.22 in Wisconsin."
McCain official Ben Golnik said the McCain-Obama race in Minnesota "is clearly a dead heat. ... Clearly, the Upper Midwest is going to be critical."
The Minneapolis fundraiser was closed to the public and the town hall meeting was open only to those the McCain campaign invited. Melendez compared that to President Bush, who appears mostly at events in front of hand-picked audiences.