Is Pawlenty eyeing the White House?

June 2, 2009 4:34:29 PM PDT
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty erased one doubt about his political future while blowing open another, passing Tuesday on a third-term bid while declining to say if he'll set his sights on the White House. Pawlenty dismissed talk of a 2012 Republican presidential campaign as premature, saying he would focus on the next 19 months to finish his term strong. But he said he wouldn't hesitate to travel the country on behalf of a party he thinks needs refreshing. He'll be in Washington on Friday to address the College Republicans.

"I'm going to try to lend voice to the need to raise issues and ideas for my party here and elsewhere if I'm asked," Pawlenty said, "because I think we need new ideas and faces in the party. That's a collateral activity - something I will do as a volunteer."

Pawlenty has spoken in the past of the GOP's need to remake itself to attract "Sam's Club Republicans."

While Minnesota doesn't have term limits, Pawlenty said he'd impose them on himself. "Time marches on, and now it's time to give someone else a chance."

At a news conference flanked by his wife, two daughters and the lieutenant governor, Pawlenty shot down suggestions that he was nervous about losing a governor's race or facing fallout from deep budget cuts he'll soon make.

He repeatedly brushed aside questions about life beyond the governor's mansion, saying he had no plans beyond his current term.

A conservative with blue-collar roots, Pawlenty, 48, has been considered a likely White House candidate for months.

He gave his political profile a boost in 2008 when he endorsed John McCain early, then campaigned for the nominee around the country. He was seen as one of two or three finalists to be McCain's running mate until McCain upended the campaign by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

His announcement comes as he's in the middle of a prolonged dispute over one of the state's U.S. Senate seats months after the election. The governor hasn't issued an election certificate because Republican Norm Coleman, whose term expired in January, is still contesting the results that tipped the race to Democrat Al Franken by a few hundred votes.

Pawlenty said he'll follow the state Supreme Court's direction on the certificate and won't "hold it up or delay it in any fashion."

Pawlenty's success as a right-leaning Republican elected twice in left-leaning Minnesota marked him in national GOP circles as a young politician to watch. Despite his two victories, Pawlenty never exceeded 46 percent of the vote. Third-party candidates factored into both elections.

If running for president is his goal, there are numerous advantages to vacating the governor's mansion. A 2010 gubernatorial campaign would be costly and potentially difficult. He also will be free to travel to political events and, more important, to key nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

The GOP field could be crowded with former and current governors. Among the potential candidates are Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"The Republicans are looking for leaders and his experience as governor gives him an entree," said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta. "One of the things that he would be trying to do is increase his name recogition and visibility throughout the country because outside of Minnesota he isn't known at all."

Pawlenty has taken a conservative's stance on taxes, most recently holding firm against attempts by legislative Democrats to increase some taxes to fill in a massive state budget deficit.

Failing to reach a compromise with Democrats, Pawlenty instead invoked executive powers that allow him to trim state spending without legislative consent.

Pawlenty strayed from his tax orthodoxy just once, when in 2005 he proposed and helped pass a 75-cent-a-pack "health impact fee" on cigarettes that critics said was just a creatively named tax.

The governor has followed traditionally conservative stances on most social issues, favoring freer access to guns and opposing abortion and legal partnership rights for gay couples. But he's broken from party orthodoxy on a few issues, speaking out in favor of importing prescription drugs from Canada and promoting pro-environmental business initiatives.

The lawyer and native of South St. Paul served on the Eagan City Council before his election to the state House where he became majority leader. Pawlenty first ran for governor in 2002, and managed to win against a veteran Democratic legislator and a prominent former congressman running for a third party.

He was re-elected in 2006 in another three-way race; despite his two victories, Pawlenty has never exceeded 46 percent of the vote.