PHOENIX (Reuters) - Republican Tim Pawlenty, gearing up for a possible White House run, criticized President Barack Obama Saturday for "coddling" labor and praised a Wisconsin drive to curb the power of public sector unions.
In a speech to conservative Tea Party activists, the sometimes mild-mannered Pawlenty took a combative tone with Obama and backed Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker in his confrontation with the labor movement.
"It says in the Constitution: 'In order to form a more perfect union.' Mr. President, that does not mean coddling out of control public employee unions," the former Minnesota governor told activists packed into a convention center for a Tea Party summit.
"And Mr. President, Wisconsin does not need a lecture from somebody who's never balanced a budget in his life," he said.
Walker's plan has sparked a stand-off in Wisconsin with Democrats and pro-union demonstrators who oppose his effort to curtail the bargaining rights of public sector unions.
The Wisconsin proposal has inspired similar efforts in other states, sparking labor protests nationwide and making Wisconsin ground zero in a national fight over union power.
Pawlenty, who asked the audience to applaud Walker's stance against "overreaching" unions, endorsed the Tea Party philosophy of reduced government and lower spending that helped fuel Republican gains in the 2010 election.
"We don't want a bigger government shoving mandates down our throats," he said, adding Obama "got it completely backwards."
Pawlenty is considered a likely contender in what could be a large field of Republican candidates to challenge Obama for the White House in 2012, although no major contenders have entered the race yet.
Pawlenty has said he will not announce a decision on running for several weeks.
Other potential Republican contenders include former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The field has narrowed in recent weeks with decisions against running by Republican Senator John Thune and Representative Mike Pence.
Pawlenty, known as "T-Paw" by his supporters, was a popular governor who slashed a $4.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and served as a strong voice against abortion and stem cell research,
In "Courage to Stand," a memoir timed to coincide with his expected campaign, Pawlenty denounced "runaway spending" in Washington and blamed Obama for a mountain of debt, although critics were divided on his conservative credentials.
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