Promising to give "my very best until the very end," presumed GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty announced Tuesday that he will not seek a third term as governor in 2010.
The declaration instantly triggered rampant speculation that Pawlenty, on the short list to be Sen. John McCain's running mate last summer, is positioning himself for a 2012 GOP presidential run.
Pawlenty firmly downplayed any such plans at the Tuesday news conference, while clearly leaving his options open.
"My focus is going to be on my next 19 months and finishing this term out strong," Pawlenty told reporters. "Beyond that, I don't know what my plans are. I don't have any plans beyond that. I don't know what the future holds."
Pawlenty quickly added, however, that he isn't "ruling anything in or out."
The Pawlenty announcement is expected to touch off a wide-ranging political scramble: Pawlenty's potential rivals for the GOP nomination, such as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, will likely cast a wary eye his way. Pawlenty has shown an ability to inspire the GOP base while also appealing to independent voters. "It is likely that he will run in 2012, but Romney is not his chief opponent," political analyst Dick Morris tells Newsmax. "All the polling shows Palin and Huckabee ahead of Romney" Ben Smith of Politico says Pawlenty's decision "certainly doesn't diminish" his presidential prospects, adding "The move also frees him from the strictures of tough Minnesota campaign-finance laws, which made presidential fundraising tough." Pawlenty said he is making the announcement now to give gubernatorial aspirants an opportunity to prepare. Three Republicans have already shown interest in the job, including former Pawlenty chief of staff Charlie Weaver. With the popular GOP governor out of the picture, Democrats can be expected to mount a major effort to reclaim Minnesota's statehouse. Followers of the ongoing Al Franken-Norm Coleman battle over Minnesota's second Senate seat will be watching carefully for any change in Pawlenty's approach. Pawlenty was expected to come under massive political pressure to sign off on Franken's election certificate, if the Minnesota Supreme Court were to rule in the Democrat's favor. Progressive blogs are speculating Pawlenty will now be more focused on the national GOP constituency, suggesting he'll do whatever he can to delay Democratic acquisition of a 60-vote majority in the Senate. Pawlenty has stated he will take whatever action is required by Minnesota law, while remaining coy his interpretation of what that means.
One clue to Pawlenty's ambitions: The major accomplishments of his administration that he cited Tuesday all have national political ramifications. He mentioned "keeping a lid on taxes and spending" and nation-leading efforts supporting members of the military and veterans and their families." He also cited health-care reform and educational reforms.
Pawlenty said he "absolutely could have won and would have won a third term" had he decided to run, mentioning recent polls showing his popularity relatively strong compared to others states' governors. He said his administration had made "a major, positive" difference for the people of Minnesota.
"I still have a lot of ideas and energies left," Pawlenty said. "But being governor should not be a permanent position for anyone. When it comes to how long someone should stay in an elected position, a little less is better than too much."
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