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WASHINGTON - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is taking himself out of contention for upcoming statewide political races -- and a possible Cabinet post -- as he steps into a high-paying job leading one of the nation's top financial lobbying groups, the Financial Services Roundtable.
Pawlenty, who was a short-lived presidential candidate and was a vice presidential finalist, said Thursday he is quitting as national co-chair for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, where he has been a high-profile surrogate.
In exiting the national stage, Pawlenty becomes president and chief executive officer of an organization that represents 100 of the largest, most influential financial services in the country and which paid his predecessor $1.8 million a year.
"We sought him out," said Scott Talbott, the roundtable's senior vice president for public policy.
The position will make Pawlenty one of the leading voices for the financial services industry in Washington at a time when Republicans are seeking to reverse many of the Wall Street restrictions passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Pawlenty, who begins his new job Nov. 1, joins the trade group as it works to influence implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 law enacted in response to the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
While running for president last year, Pawlenty said his "truth message to Wall Street is going to be, 'Get your snout out of the trough.'" On Thursday, Pawlenty said that "Obviously, I was one of the voices saying we need to fix the problems . . . Now we just need to make sure they don't overreach and stifle economic investment and job growth."
Pawlenty said he would leave politics behind for at least two years and possibly longer.
"He is committed to work for the roundtable for the foreseeable future," Talbot said.
It also rules out a Cabinet post that some of his closest associates thought possible if Romney were to defeat President Obama.
Pawlenty's decision to leave the Romney campaign in the critical home stretch of a race with the GOP candidate slipping in the polls raised further doubts about the prospects for Romney's campaign, which has come under criticism from some Republican strategists.
"In some ways it is surprising that he didn't wait until after the election," said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson. "He could have waited to see if Romney won and he got a Cabinet post."
Pawlenty, a two-term governor, served as one of Romney's top advisers, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and often appeared on television and at campaign events on Romney's behalf.
'Doesn't close any doors'
Several Minnesota Republicans who have worked with Pawlenty or know him well say the move into the private sector is a logical step for him financially, as well as politically.
"It certainly doesn't close any doors for elective office," said Minnesota Business Partnership leader Charlie Weaver, Pawlenty's former chief of staff. "He can still scratch that itch but at the same time be in the private sector and pay for his kids' college."
Pawlenty's job at the roundtable will pay substantially more than any political office or appointment. While the lobbying group would not release Pawlenty's annual salary, filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that Pawlenty's predecessor, Steve Bartlett, was paid $1.8 million in 2010. As governor, Pawlenty earned about $120,000 a year. In 2011, as part of his presidential run, Pawlenty reported earning just over $700,000 in 2010 from his gubernatorial salary, royalty payments from his autobiography and speaking fees.
Weaver said Pawlenty has conferred with former GOP administration officials such as ex-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and concluded that a possible Cabinet position is "not that enticing" for a former governor.
Weaver also pushed back against numerous Washington pundits who speculated that Pawlenty's move reflected a lack of faith in Romney's chances against Obama, who has opened leads in a number of national and swing state polls.
"For those who say this is somehow the rats leaving the ship, that's not what's going on here at all," Weaver said.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. These things don't come along very often."
Former Pawlenty aide Brian McClung said that as the former governor embarks on a career in the private sector, he is "taking off the table running for U.S. Senate or governor in 2014."
'A good and healthy thing'
Pawlenty's exit from the public stage should be applauded, McClung said. "It's what the founders had in mind when our system was created," he said. "Pundits and the chattering class often seem confounded when someone chooses to do what Governor Pawlenty is doing, but it's a good and healthy thing."
The Romney campaign issued a statement calling Pawlenty a "dear friend" and wishing him success in his new position.
"Mitt Romney is a truly good man and great leader," Pawlenty said in a statement.
"As the campaign moves into the home stretch, he has my full support and continued faith in his vision and his policies."
Star Tribune staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123 Kevin Diaz • 202-383-6120