Heading to San Diego for a speech that would define him as a presidential contender, Gov. Tim Pawlenty brought no entourage -- just a suit bag, slung over his shoulder as he boarded the plane.

An unpaid advance man, former White House aide Alex Conant, would be waiting for him on the West Coast when he arrived. Meeting at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, they would constitute the extent of the Pawlenty political organization on the ground.

As he develops a political presence across the country, Pawlenty is truly traveling light. No big political group, no fundraising committee and no formal campaign organization -- just what he calls an "ad hoc" band of operatives who chip in advice and handle logistics.

With the national GOP searching for a new standard-bearer for 2012, those logistics consist mostly of scheduling a steady stream of trips and speaking engagements, such as the recent speech to the Republican National Committee in San Diego.

There is little glamour in the early days on the national trail, especially when the potential candidate comes from no money and less celebrity. But if the mission appears bare-bones, that's partly by design.

Pawlenty's advisers say this is no time to be conspicuously running for president. The byword, instead, is party-building -- at least until the 2010 elections, when, Pawlenty says, he'll see where he stands.

A small, strong band

His band of advisers is small, but represents some serious GOP political muscle.

For now, they're satisfied to position Minnesota's governor as a lower-key, fresh-faced alternative to Big Names who failed so spectacularly in 2008 -- a candidate, as it were, without baggage.

"A lot of Republicans will be excited about seeing a new, young, bright guy they haven't seen before," said national GOP strategist Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former Republican congressman from Minnesota. "They're looking for a fresh face, and he's a fresh face. That's not a disadvantage at this stage. That's a plus for a party that has gone through defeat."

Weber has strong ties to Pawlenty and to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, still considered the GOP front-runner. Weber won't pick sides yet, but he says that party activists are eager to get in on the ground floor of an emerging organization or political action committee. Pawlenty says he will launch such a committee in the coming months, whether or not he makes a bid for the White House.

"For the ability to help out nationally, to have some infrastructure, to help other candidates across the country, a PAC [political action committee] would be the way to do that," Pawlenty told the Star Tribune last week.

But, he added, "I don't need that right now." Forming a PAC is considered a crucial step in building a presidential campaign.

In the meantime, there are just informal helpers such as Conant, who also has worked with the Republican National Committee. Other key players include longtime Pawlenty political operative Bob Schroeder, an aide on his now-defunct gubernatorial campaign.

There's also former chief of staff Charlie Weaver, a close friend, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a potential Pawlenty guide into the world of corporate cash.

Farther in the background is Tony Fabrizio, a top national Republican pollster and strategist, and Washington public relations man Phil Musser, a former adviser to Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.

A big jump

On one thing the group agrees: While Pawlenty is building momentum in the sweepstakes for savvy insider political buzz, he can't take the ragtag, ad hoc approach for long.

At some point, he'll need to pick up his game with a crack, bona-fide political organization capable of raising big money, organizing events and promoting GOP campaigns in every corner of the country.

"This is a daunting assignment for anybody," Weaver said. "It's like going from Double-A ball to the big leagues. It's a big jump."

But eight months into the Obama administration, Pawlenty can get away with simply being seen and heard as a national presence, if not a declared candidate, which would paint a political target on his back.

"There's something to be said for not being the first guy in line," Weaver said.

Given the diminished state of the GOP field, Pawlenty has received favorable national buzz while honing his down-home, "Sam's Club" conservatism in political venues from Washington to California. Next on his itinerary are Chicago, Puerto Rico and the delegate-rich states of Florida and Ohio.

Pawlenty's name appears regularly among opinion-maker discussions of 2012 GOP presidential prospects, including one recent online forum on Politico.com's "Arena."

Blake Wilson, a New York teacher, wrote: "Tim Pawlenty comes off as knowledgeable, competent, and he does a good job of articulating core Republican policies without sounding strident or angry."

Pawlenty's self-effacing brand of Minnesota Nice plays to his underdog image and is reinforced by a seemingly casual, offhand political apparatus, at least in comparison to the more polished troops behind such high-profile contenders as Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee.

"There's not any organization doing work on the governor's behalf right now," Conant said. "It's just a handful of us being helpful when we can."

But Conant, a Minnesota native who worked in former President George W. Bush's White House press shop, notes that "there are a lot of people who are eager to help."

For the moment, Pawlenty said, "I have Bob Schroeder and a volunteer who schedules me."

When Schroeder's not available -- he was picking up one of his children from camp when Pawlenty went to San Diego -- others, including Conant, fill in.

Bigger guns

But the underdog quest of a truck driver's son can only go so far. Candidates also are judged by the talent they attract, and Pawlenty has had nibbles from some of Washington's bigger guns. Among them is Fabrizio, chief pollster and strategist in Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign who has polled for Pawlenty in the past. Another is Musser, president of New Frontier Strategy, a communications and public relations firm, who served as a senior adviser to the Romney campaign in 2007. Still, at a time when everyone wants to keep their options open, none of these operatives is locked in to any candidate. Musser, for example, has also advised Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another potential GOP presidential contender. Musser also has served as finance co-chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), under Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a GOP power broker who may be considering a White House run.

The RGA, one of the strongest power centers in the fractured, post-Bush Republican Party, could also be a highly visible perch for Pawlenty, whom Barbour recently named as vice chairman.

Of his new close working relationship with Barbour, Pawlenty joked, "We've got both ends of the Mississippi River covered."

Kevin Diaz • 1-202-408-2753