WASHINGTON - Tim Pawlenty called it before presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate Saturday. To Pawlenty, who had been a top contender for the job, the suspense felt like "a little bit of deja vu."
For the second time in as many presidential elections, the former Minnesota governor just missed the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket, leaving him to once again ponder his political fate.
The Ryan pick signaled Romney's willingness to embrace a nationally known deficit hawk -- and Midwesterner -- who has shown he can rally conservatives around his plan to cut entitlements. In contrast, Pawlenty had topped many pundits' short lists as a safe choice who would not overshadow Romney's desire for the campaign to be about President Obama and the economy.
The announcement came a year after Pawlenty ended his own bid for the presidency, a methodical but underfunded campaign that faltered at the outset, in the GOP straw poll in Iowa, where he was eclipsed by fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann.
Much as he did in 2008, when he was the runner-up to Sarah Palin, Pawlenty betrayed no feelings of disappointment in being passed over. While Romney and Ryan appeared together in Norfolk, Va., Pawlenty went about scheduled fundraising events for Romney in New Hampshire.
"I didn't enter this thinking I would be the VP candidate, so I'm not disappointed," Pawlenty said Friday night, as the news started to filter out. "I'm excited about his candidacy, and I'm excited about having him as president."
Like a Super Bowl loss
Unlike in 2008, Pawlenty did not get a pre-announcement call directly from the presidential candidate. Instead, he was in contact with Romney's oldest son, Tagg.
Moments after the pick was made official, Pawlenty released a statement praising Ryan. "Congressman Ryan is a respected leader and a bold thinker regarding the changes needed to restore America," Pawlenty said.
In his 2011 campaign autobiography, "Courage to Stand," Pawlenty wrote in detail about Sen. John McCain's "gutsy" decision to select Palin, turning it into a self-deprecating joke about being left to pick up his dog's "number two." At the time, he shrugged it off by telling himself that "dwelling on it served no purpose."
Advisers say that at 51, Pawlenty still has a lot of politics left in him. "He has a very bright future," said Republican strategist Randy Skoglund, who has known Pawlenty since his days on the Eagan City Council. "He's young, he's talented, he's got great political instincts. He's very genuine ... and now he's got a lot more experience."
A Romney victory this fall could translate into a Cabinet position or other high-level post for Pawlenty, who serves as a national co-chair for the Romney campaign. As a leading surrogate, Pawlenty has logged long road hours crisscrossing the nation with other top GOP figures.
Pawlenty is widely viewed as a potentially formidable opponent to Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat up for re-election in two years. Pawlenty, those who know him say, is keeping his options open. "I can speak for many, many Republicans when I say that if he chooses to run again, we would be delighted," said Minnesota GOP Party Chairman Pat Shortridge.
While critics might be tempted to portray him as a perennial runner-up, Pawlenty backers say he has not run out of chances. "It's kind of like Super Bowl quarterbacks," said longtime friend and former chief of staff Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership. "There are lots of quarterbacks who didn't win their first Super Bowl, or even the second one, but who ultimately win."
In recent months the former two-term governor has picked up appointments to seven corporate boards, which provide him income, private sector experience, and the flexibility to jump back into politics.
But in the aftermath of a presidential quest that failed to gain traction, Pawlenty's appeal as a national vote-getter remains far from certain. "It's an honor for somebody to be considered," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democratic National Committee vice chair. "But there's a reason why people keep digging into his record, seeing nothing there, and moving on."
Although Pawlenty was vetted in 2008 by presidential candidate John McCain, he is not well known outside the Midwest. Despite his run for president, his place in the national GOP constellation remains largely undefined.
But if Pawlenty decides to engage in national politics again, his roots in traditionally DFL-leaning Minnesota could be his chief calling card. For now, he signalled that he is ready to step back a bit. He talked about people getting on with their lives, to which his wife, Mary, told reporters: "And you can stop following us."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.