WASHINGTON, D.C. - The 2012 elections are less than nine months away, and nobody has any idea who might challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

That's great news for Klobuchar and bad news for Republicans, however much they like their chances of winning back control of the Senate.

Enter Pete Hegseth, an Afghanistan War veteran seemingly straight from central casting: articulate, telegenic, an outsider with an Ivy League pedigree.

Seeing virtue in a 31-year-old citizen-soldier who has never run for office before, Minnesota conservatives are frankly wowed. "It's hard to imagine a more appealing candidate," said Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis think tank where Heg- seth has been a senior fellow. "Just in terms of a résumé, he's remarkably impressive."

A kid from Forest Lake who goes to Princeton, volunteers for military service, and does graduate work at Harvard doesn't come along every day, and Minnesota Republicans are not likely to let Hegseth slip away.

Recently returned to his wife and 20-month-old son, Hegseth says he's "actively considering" a run. There are other names in the mix, but none of them gets GOP hearts fluttering: St. Bonifacius City Council Member Joe Arwood, St. Paul businessman Anthony Hernandez, and former state Rep. Dan "Doc" Severson.

Severson is the best-known of the trio, but a failed bid for Minnesota secretary of state in 2010 hardly marks him as a political powerhouse.

Which brings us back to Hegseth. While not terribly well-known in Minnesota, he has deep roots in the national conservative movement as a former leader of Vets for Freedom, a group that was active on Capitol Hill and close to the George W. Bush White House. The group and its affiliated political action committee fully supported Bush's war aims in Iraq, where Hegseth also served.

That made Hegseth a frequent guest on national television, clips from which have been spliced into a new video sponsored by a grass-roots "Draft Pete" group.

The group's manager is Anne Neu, who helped engineer Republican Chip Cravaack's 2010 upset victory over veteran Democratic congressman Jim Oberstar. That track record could help against an incumbent senator who was elected with 58 percent of the vote and has $4.6 million in the bank.

Still, one big question facing Hegseth is how his trademark see-the-war-out-till-we-win philosophy will resonate with this year's Afghanistan-weary independent voters.

All the same, Neu says she was bowled over when she first learned about Hegseth. "It doesn't take long to Google Pete and see the potential there for a really formidable candidate," she said.

First, she said, he brings energy and excitement to a state GOP endorsement race that has been lacking in both. Second, he is the only contender in the Republican field who is likely to get national notice for taking on Klobuchar. U.S. Senate races are increasingly national affairs that require outside money to win. Hegseth would be a vehicle for that.

Republicans still know that beating Klobuchar will be no easy feat, which is one reason there are no big names lining up to challenge her. Hegseth, coming out of nowhere, may be their last, best hope.