MANCHESTER, N.H. - Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a big fan of Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has introduced him at various town halls over the weekend as part of "the next generation of America's leaders."
But McCain has also made one thing perfectly clear: Pawlenty's weekend foray into the intensity of New Hampshire's presidential primary was to help McCain win nine days from now, not to groom Pawlenty for higher office.
And despite frequent speculation that Pawlenty is being positioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate on a McCain ticket, the Arizona Republican senator on Sunday said for the first time what Pawlenty has long contended: The two have never broached the subject.
"I promise you we have not had one word about the vice presidency. It's just premature," McCain said in an interview in front of his bus on Sunday, before he and Pawlenty headed out for another day of campaigning.
Pawlenty spent the weekend in New Hampshire introducing McCain at house parties and town hall meetings, and was scheduled to return to Minnesota on Sunday night.
Bolstered by recent upswings in the polls in New Hampshire after a precipitous decline, McCain's "Straight Talk Express," with Pawlenty in tow, played to New Hampshire residents who crowded into Lions Clubs, VFWs and church basements. Some were there to show support, others to make up their minds.
At a morning appearance at his main campaign headquarters in Manchester, McCain bragged of picking up the endorsement of every major newspaper in the state except one, as well as of the Boston Globe and Boston Herald.
While unlikely to sway committed voters, a newspaper endorsement could move undecided voters to give him a second look, McCain said. That could prove pivotal in New Hampshire, where independents may be the decisive factor for both major parties when the state holds the nation's first primary next week, shortly after Iowa's caucuses on Thursday. New Hampshire is considered so significant for McCain -- with Iowa largely out of reach -- that McCain will remain in New Hampshire through the last days before the Iowa caucuses.
In many respects, New Hampshire voters mirror those in Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states, Pawlenty said. He described the state as "tending blue [Democratic] but with a strong independent streak."
Pawlenty, who is a national co-chairman of the McCain campaign, said the trip to New Hampshire has been only one of a few events he has done for McCain, describing his title as largely ceremonial. He said he has no day-to-day involvement in the campaign.
But whether by calculation or not, Pawlenty's trips to support McCain have impressed some people among Republican circles in New Hampshire. Strafford County Republican chairman Matt Mayberry said he heard Pawlenty talk for 15 minutes in Manchester and asked for him to talk to supporters in a recent campaign stop in Dover, about 40 miles to the northeast.
"He just knocked it out of the park," Mayberry said following a morning town hall meeting. "I think he makes a strong appeal to evangelical Christians, which is a strong bloc in my district."
Many others said that Pawlenty was not necessarily a household name but that they seemed to remember his face from television reports on the Aug. 1 Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
"We didn't see enough of him to have much of an impression," said Rob Gregory of Merrimack, N.H.
McCain, in the interview, said that Pawlenty embodies traditional Republican ideals and that he will continue to be a strong supporter.
"Republicans are in trouble because they let spending get out of control. He's a guy who's a strong fiscal conservative. He's what a lot of us who have been around the party a long time are looking for," said McCain, who also mentioned Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as an up-and-coming Republican. Regardless, McCain, who became friends with Pawlenty when McCain came to Minneapolis for a political event before Pawlenty was in the Legislature, said he has never discussed specifics of Pawlenty's future with him.
"Most of the time we spent together he was running for re-election in a very tough race. I think that Tim Pawlenty is going to have a leadership position, but at this time to talk about who would be a vice president isn't happening," McCain said.
And even if Pawlenty reaps some future benefits by leaving an impression on people in the key primary state, McCain said Pawlenty's participation in his campaign was purely for the immediate future: McCain's.
"It exposes him to political campaigns, but most importantly, here is a young, attractive, dynamic governor of a state who's willing to go a thousand miles or so to take time out to campaign for me. That impresses people," McCain said.
New Hampshire residents take seriously their responsibility in vetting future national leaders and have their own methods of determining how serious any politician might be. After a meeting in one VFW, one Amherst, N.H., woman said she always knows who is planning on running for higher office: the candidates who show up for the Fourth of July parade down the main street of the tiny town.
"If I see, what's his name, Mr. Pawlenty, at the Fourth of July parade in Amherst, then I'll take him seriously," she said.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636