ST. PAUL, Minn. – Gov. Tim Pawlenty can't see Russia from his house.
Neither could former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, of course, but her suggestion that Russia's proximity to her home state made for foreign policy chops was spoofed endlessly during the 2008 campaign. The Minnesota Republican won't be such an easy target — he's a globe-trotter whose trade missions, troop visits and stops at exclusive international conferences have taken him to Baghdad, Bangalore, Beijing and points beyond.
As such, Tiny Fey won't be able to poke fun at his passport on "Saturday Night Live" should he run for the White House. But with the 2012 Iowa caucuses still some two years away, Pawlenty is quick to dismisses the suggestion that his overseas travel — his latest trade mission departs Saturday for Brazil and Chile — has been meant to serve anything but Minnesota's interests.
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"That isn't why we do it," Pawlenty said this week. The trade missions and troop visits in particular are "obvious and worthy uses of a governor's time."
Still, one of the first tests for him and other White House hopefuls will be whether they have what it takes to steer the U.S. through wars, diplomacy, treaties, trade matters and other global issues. Candidates also must show the mettle required of the commander in chief, with the nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea.
Proving they can measure up is often toughest for governors, whose job descriptions limit their international reach.
As governor, Palin had stuck so close to home that her foreign policy credentials were immediately questioned when Sen. John McCain picked her as his running mate. She had traveled only once outside North America before landing on the national stage, and was ridiculed by Fey and others who touting Alaska's proximity to Russia as foreign policy experience.
Pawlenty will have more travel on his resume, but his long trips abroad doesn't automatically translated into unimpeachable foreign policy credentials.
"If you overstate that, it can backfire," said Mark Dillen, a former Foreign Service officer who blogs for the nonpartisan Foreign Policy Association.
During the 2008 campaign, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee talked about visiting 40 countries and sleeping in the fortified Green Zone on visits to Iraq. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visited Iraq and Afghanistan while considering a run.
During his 2004 campaign for president, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean visited three continents, yet still was attacked by rival Democrats on his foreign policy credentials. Dean attributed that to his front-runner status at the time, and said the trips were enlightening.
"I once had a four-hour conversation over dinner with (then German Chancellor) Gerhard Schroeder and four other governors," Dean said. "It's a very quick learning curve when you get to do something like that."
Former President George W. Bush used Texas's close relationship with Mexico to counter critics who said he hadn't traveled enough when he ran in 2000. Some joked at the time that Bush, then the Texas governor, was the only U.S. governor with his own foreign policy.
In a pinch, advisers can provide cover. When then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton ran in 1992, he tried to stick mainly to domestic issues but pointed to a team of veteran foreign policy advisers drawn from Congress and President Jimmy Carter's administration.
President Barack Obama, a senator who had served on the Foreign Relations Committee, had to deal with the foreign policy question during his campaign. Though he lived in Indonesia as a child, his overseas travel had been limited, and he went to the Middle East and Europe during the campaign to project a seasoned image.
Pawlenty has taken a methodical approach to travel, leading roughly one trade mission a year and visiting Minnesota soldiers overseas about as often. He has been to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Kuwait, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom. A trip to Mexico is also planned.
Pawlenty's interest in international affairs impressed former German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger when they met in Minnesota several years ago. Ischinger, who now heads the Munich Security Conference, has invited Pawlenty to the exclusive annual gathering of world leaders and global security experts for three years running.
"I invite people who have the capacity to be leaders in the future or who are leaders, who are important to how we develop the world forward and how we deal with ongoing crises," Ischinger said.
Past presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and McCain have attended the conference in a posh Munich hotel. Pawlenty says he hasn't decided whether to attend the next conference, in February, because of commitments back home.
Though Pawlenty has said he's undecided about a presidential bid, he's started a political action committee and this week hired a top McCain fundraiser to serve as finance director. Whatever he decides, his potential rivals won't be standing still.
Palin, who is on a national tour promoting her book "Going Rogue," gave her first overseas speech in Hong Kong in September. The trip was widely seen as groundwork for a possible 2012 bid.
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