Tim Pawlenty may not have won the straw poll at the recent Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit, but his speech got an ad hoc "Best of Class" award from a contributor to the conservative political magazine American Spectator.

Hunter Baker, an assistant political science professor at Houston Baptist University, writes: "The Minnesota governor came off as smart, tough, and ready for prime time. If he keeps making the rounds speaking the way he did Friday night, he is going to gain supporters in every part of the Republican coalition. I'm tempted to include some excerpts from the remarks, but I don't think it will do him justice.

"What impressed me more than any particular phrase was the way he carried himself. His countenance exuded challenge to the left. There was, to employ an overused sporting phrase, a notable swagger in the way Pawlenty looked and talked."

The National Review's Mark Hemingway also gave Pawlenty's speech a favorable review, but stops short of calling it the best one delivered at the event: "Pawlenty simply nailed his speech. Right message, right crowd, right tone, right on. That said, Pawlenty's speech at the convention last year wasn't the best. If Pawlenty is gearing up to run in 2012, time will tell if this speech represents him rising to the occasion or if he merely found a rare moment in the zone. ... Whether this will translate into any momentum for Pawlenty remains to be seen, but I don't think anyone expected him to be a breakout star at the Values Voters conference.''

So who won the straw poll? Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with 28 percent of votes cast, not a surprise given that he's a former minister and that this event had a definite religious underpinning. Mitt Romney, Pawlenty and Sarah Palin and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence all finished right around 12 percent, essentially tying for second place.

JILL BURCUM