In a basement hearing room, behind closed doors, newly victorious Minnesota House Republicans today are picking their new leaders.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has the inside line on the speaker’s post. He recruited the candidates and built a campaign that brought the GOP back to the majority in the House, when no other Minnesota Republicans could win.

But Daudt has competition from at least two other veterans. Both Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, are running for the top post.

“I think Matt’s the guy. I implicitly trust him,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

Dean and Daudt did not share their thoughts with the waiting media as they entered the caucus meeting. Hamilton, however, said as one of the rural members of the legislation, he would make sure that outstate Minnesota is not forgotten.

“But,” he added, “we need to represent the entire state."

Along with picking a new speaker, the Republican majority on Friday will also select a majority leader in a contested contest and hear advice from Republicans who have been in their spots before.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the last Republican to win a statewide seat, stopped by the St. Paul building to offer his advice.

“My counsel to them is to stick to the bread and butter issues: jobs, safety schools, the economy more broadly, health care reform,” he said after visiting the closed-door meeting.

Pawlenty won his last term as governor in 2006, when voters also sent a Democratic majority to the Minnesota House.

“Minnesotans have a way of wanting to balance things out,” said Pawlenty.

The atmosphere for statewide candidates has since become more difficult, he said.

“Minnesota, I think, since I was in office has moved moved back to light blue,” Pawlenty said, who served ten years in the Minnesota House, including four as Republicans’ majority leader. I think Minnesota is a state where you gotta appeal to independents, you can’t just win statewide by just getting the support of the Republicans. So, thinking about issues like jobs, issues like school reform.”

As for his political future, Pawlenty told reporters that he had a “full run” in public service and he is on a "sabbatical" from the life. He is now the head of the national Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, although he comes back to his Eagan house every week.

“It’s nice to take a break from politics,” he said.

Update: Pawlenty later contacted reporters to say that when he said he was on a sabbatical from political life, he meant "retired."

Update II: Shortly before noon, after three hours of meeting, the Republicans were preparing to hear the opening remarks from potential leaders.

Photos: (Top) Rep. Kurt Daudt, entering caucus meeting Friday; (Bottom) Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty as reporters catch up to him. Source: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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