SAN DIEGO — Tim Pawlenty has sterling GOP credentials for pursuing the presidency — eight years as Minnesota governor, John McCain's short list for vice president and a recent stint as the Republican Governors Association's second in command.
What he doesn't have is a familiar name; few people outside his state know who he is.
That may present a challenge for Pawlenty as he seeks to break through a crowded field of potential GOP candidates that includes big-name Republicans like Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. It also could hinder his efforts to raise some $35 million, the minimum amount Republicans estimate GOP candidates will need to run in 2012.
"If you're a serious candidate for president you become well known, so over time that resolves itself," Pawlenty said this week, dismissing the possible hurdle to a candidacy that many GOP strategists expect him to launch next year. He expresses confidence he would be able to raise the necessary money for a "Cadillac or at least a Buick" campaign — "if I decided to do this."
Beyond Minnesota, the leadoff caucus state of Iowa may be one place that knows the neighboring governor most — or at least knows of him. But a recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed what Pawlenty's up against everywhere else. Among self-identified Republican or GOP-leaning adults, 59 percent offered no opinion on him, while 28 percent viewed him favorably and 13 percent unfavorably.
So it didn't hurt that Pawlenty took center stage — literally — during the Republican Governors Association's annual two-day conference. It was valuable exposure as he seeks to boost his profile and prove to fellow Republicans that he has what it takes to challenge President Barack Obama.
"I'm available, that's the thing," Pawlenty, the group's outgoing No. 2, said half-jokingly.
Other possible 2012 contenders were on hand as well, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the RGA chairman for the 2010 elections, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Gingrich, the former House speaker, also spoke at the gathering.
But it was Pawlenty who presided over the conference's opening day. He sat on a dais flanked by the GOP's newly elected governors as he facilitated a panel discussion. Later, he introduced them at a news conference.
The next day, Pawlenty joined other chief executives on a panel to counsel incoming governors on how to rein in spending and shrink government. And he published a column in the San Diego Union-Tribune urging them to use their authority to halt or delay the new health care law's implementation.
It was all part of his final duties as the RGA's vice chairman.
"If he ends up running for president all his hard work will endear to his benefit on that," said Barbour, who chose him as his deputy partly to help Pawlenty prepare for a possible White House bid and learn how to raise money in a campaign finance system less stringent than the one in Minnesota.
During the gathering, Pawlenty — the laid-back son of working-class "Sam's Club Republicans" from a meatpacking town — mingled about, casually shaking hands and chatting up anyone who approached him. No entourage was in sight. No swarms of fans were either. He appeared to take it all in stride, whether he was holding court before a small group of reporters in his 25th-floor hotel suite or simply in the hallways on the sidelines of the action.
"So what the heck is going on?" was how he greeted one group.
It was, aides say, vintage "TPaw."
So was how he traveled to the conference.
He sheds his state security detail when outside Minnesota. His commercial flight from Minneapolis got diverted to Phoenix because of West Coast fog. He ended up flying to Ontario, Calif., and hopped a bus for the 113-mile ride south. He arrived in San Diego at 4:45 a.m. — and greeted attendees a few hours later, no worse for the wear.
Throughout the conference, the unassuming Pawlenty was at turns blunt and diplomatic.
"If the election were held today, he would be beat," Pawlenty said of Obama. But the governor quickly added that a lot can happen in two years.
He cheered the newly elected Republican governors but also acknowledged that if they don't keep promises to bring back economically ailing states by cutting spending, creating jobs and scaling back government, "then we should be thrown out."
Would their failure undercut the eventual Republican presidential nominee?
"Yes," he says, bluntly. "It's a performance-based system."
On the obvious question, he told reporters: "I haven't made a final decision yet" — even though he's spent more than a year laying the groundwork for a presidential candidacy. He must continue serving as governor until a successor emerges from a likely recount; a decision on the White House wouldn't come until sometime next year after a January book tour that that could serve to boost his profile.
Sounding very much like a candidate, Pawlenty explained why he and his wife, Mary, are considering a run. "We think the country's in trouble. ... And I've got a set of experiences and skills that might benefit the country."
Among them: He's a Republican who has run a Democratic-leaning state and has learned to work across the aisle.
"The next president is going to have to be unpopular for a while, there's some really tough stuff that needs to get done," Pawlenty said.
This son of Minnesota bets voters will be looking less for a person with "sizzle" or "drama," and more for someone who can seriously address the country's needs and who has a record of results — "not just talking about it — actually doing it, gettin' it done." He repeatedly said the person must have "fortitude."
"Are you going to be willing to do the very difficult things and take the very difficult hits and keep moving forward?" he asked.
It was clear he thinks he fits that mold — even if he won't say it yet.
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