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WASHINGTON - For the first time since they began testing bids for the White House, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann will cross paths on Friday night at a dinner in New Hampshire.
While the presidential "summit" in Manchester will cast the Minnesotans as rivals, to GOP insiders they represent different segments of the Republican coalition, leaving open the possibility that both could advance in their separate brackets.
Minnesotans have not seen two native sons (or daughters) go deep into a presidential election since Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy vied for the 1968 Democratic nomination. But between Pawlenty's insider credibility and Bachmann's outsider appeal, some observers say neither cancels the other out.
"It's two very different restaurants, two very different clienteles," said Minnesota GOP strategist Andy Brehm. "She's not stealing votes from him, nor he from her."
Meanwhile, at the Americans for Prosperity conference in New Hampshire, Pawlenty and Bachmann are being received as a double Minnesota threat to surge or place well in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
"That's the race to watch," said Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the influential Republican Liberty Caucus in New Hampshire. "They both have amazing opportunities."
Despite their low poll numbers, Bachmann and Pawlenty remain solidly in the midst of a large pack of struggling GOP contenders, with no prohibitive favorite to take on President Obama in 2012. By Hemingway's calculation, "thirty-thousand votes could win this primary, so they both have a very real chance."
As voters are seeing in New Hampshire, the styles and tactics that set Pawlenty and Bachmann apart are more pronounced than the regional ties that bind them.
Both are fresh faces in the Granite State, which, like the first-caucus state of Iowa, has grown accustomed to a procession of presidential hopefuls, including established front-runners like Mitt Romney and insurgent candidates like businessman/activist Herman Cain.
Romney and Cain also will have turns at the dais in Manchester, along with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who appeals to many of the same religious conservatives as Bachmann.
Pawlenty will lead off with an eight-minute speech followed by a question-and-answer period moderated by Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. The Tea Party group recently organized a U.S. Capitol rally with Bachmann.
Romney, considered Pawlenty's chief rival in the top echelons of the GOP mainstream, will follow Pawlenty and Santorum. Bachmann, arguably the group's most fiery speaker, will go last.
With Pawlenty scheduled to take part in the first GOP debate next week in South Carolina, the field has become a free-for-all among a dozen potential candidates. Still, all eyes are on the two biggest names -- Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee -- who appear to be holding back for now.
The departure of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has thinned the field of establishment candidates, but it also could open the way for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a highly respected fiscal conservative who could pose a bigger threat to Pawlenty.
On the Tea Party right, the bracket where Bachmann is strongest, the field has grown more crowded with the splashy arrival of billionaire and "Celebrity Apprentice" host Donald Trump, who catapulted to the top of the polls by bringing a megaphone to doubts about Obama's birthplace. Trump took credit on Wednesday for forcing the president to produce his "long-form" birth certificate.
'One style ... or another'
In a fragmented field, Pawlenty and Bachmann have distinguished themselves in two important ways: Pawlenty for his meticulous organization, Bachmann for her Tea Party allure.
"You see Governor Pawlenty running a campaign which is exceptionally well-managed right now, particularly in New Hampshire," said Corey Lewandowski, New Hampshire state director for Americans for Prosperity. "He has collected a virtual who's who of endorsements and supporters, doing all the right things to build his credibility."
Bachmann lacks the same ground organization, but she has been a much bigger media presence on Fox News, building a national brand that helped her raise more money than anyone else in the contest this year.
But the popular divide is clear. The notoriety of hot prospects like Trump and Bachmann raises questions within the GOP about whether a populist Tea Party figure could overwhelm a less outspoken candidate like Pawlenty.
"The quote establishment in New Hampshire is going to be looking for someone they believe is the strongest potential candidate in the general election," Lewandowski said. "Then you're going to have a whole group of people who are going to vote on principles, and those principles are probably in line with Tea Party coalition-type people."
Not that Pawlenty has failed to reach out to the Tea Party base. He has appeared at a Tea Party convention in Arizona and tax day rallies in Boston and New Hampshire. But his best argument for the GOP nomination rests on his record as a conservative governor in a historically liberal state; that is, a candidate with crossover appeal to the political center.
"There's the Tea Party and then there are more general Republicans who really want to win," Brehm said, "and that's where Tim Pawlenty comes in."
Bachmann and Pawlenty have said next-to-nothing about each other in the presidential race. But in seeking to define himself as a can-do figure, Pawlenty took an indirect swipe at Bachmann this week, telling Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, "It is not only about giving a speech or offering a failed amendment in Congress."
Other than Texas Republican Ron Paul, Bachmann, recently named one of Time magazine's "100 most influential people in the world," is the only member of Congress considering a run for the White House.
But until somebody in the Republican field catches fire -- which may not happen until the Iowa straw poll in August -- there appears to be room on the stage for both an establishment and an anti-establishment candidate.
"You're going to support one style of candidate or another," Brehm said. "You can't find one Iowa voter right now who's trying to decide between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.