Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty found himself backed into the uncomfortable position of gently contradicting GOP presidential front-runner and political mentor John McCain Thursday, saying everyone should refrain from "rushing to judgment" on the causes of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

McCain said on Wednesday that wasteful, pork-barrel spending was responsible for the disaster, but Pawlenty said federal investigators suspect a design flaw unrelated to recent spending decisions and said the experts should be allowed to complete their work.

On Thursday, facing increasing criticism from Democrats, McCain backed off from his statement.

Insisting that McCain owed Minnesota an apology for "disgusting" comments, DFLers jumped in to deride Pawlenty for not denouncing McCain's politicization of the issue and said the disagreement shows that Pawlenty, a co-chairman of McCain's national campaign, must not be a real candidate to be McCain's running mate.

Pawlenty told reporters on Thursday that he left a message with McCain campaign staffers to remind them that the investigation into the cause of the bridge collapse is not complete but that early indications suggested the disaster was caused by design flaws and weight distribution from construction on the bridge at the time.

In Pennsylvania on Wednesday, McCain told reporters: "The bridge in Minneapolis didn't collapse because there wasn't enough money. The bridge in Minneapolis collapsed because so much money was spent on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects."

At a campaign stop in Cleveland Thursday, facing increasing heat for his remarks, McCain backed off, saying, "Do I know specifically whether [better spending priorities] would have replaced that bridge in Minneapolis? No, but I know that funding would have been available for higher-priority projects."

Pawlenty never directly contradicted McCain's comments but said they emerged from McCain's larger frustration over congressional earmarking that Pawlenty said resulted in wasteful spending.

"He's making the general statement that Congress has underserved the country by doing pork-barrel spending and earmarking in transportation projects and clearly that's the case and I agree with that," Pawlenty said. "Then he suggested that other things could be better had they not done that. He may not just be aware of all the details of the [National Transportation Safety Board's] work. I think once he learns of that, I'm sure he'll incorporate that into his thinking."

Stronger scolding of DFLers

Earlier this year, Pawlenty used stronger language to chastise Democratic critics, saying they should "quit using the bridge, quit exploiting the bridge tragedy to advance their political agendas" after a preliminary report pointed to the design flaw rather than deferred maintenance as a tentative cause of the collapse.

Responding to McCain's remarks and Pawlenty's defense of them, Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said McCain made a mistake and owes the citizens of Minnesota an apology.

"Candidates just about at any level are going to manipulate any statistic and emotion that they can to get elected," Murphy said. "I think this was just plain flat out disgusting behavior on Senator McCain's part."

Murphy also challenged Pawlenty, who frequently has campaigned for McCain and has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible vice presidential candidate with McCain.

"You would think that if Governor Pawlenty was a serious vice presidential consideration by Senator McCain, that Senator McCain might have wanted to talk to the governor in regards to the 35 bridge before he made those statements."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, whose district includes the bridge collapse site, also was critical of McCain's remarks, suggesting he should have consulted Pawlenty about the real causes.

"Minnesota has yet to heal from the wounds inflicted by this tragedy of the bridge collapse. Thirteen of our citizens lost their lives and 143 suffered serious injury, and all of us are still shaken," Ellison said in a statement. "The last thing we need is a misinformed presidential aspirant posturing at our expense."

Obama also cited bridge

A McCain campaign spokeswoman said Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been mentioning the bridge collapse in stump speeches for days in relation to a suggestion by McCain and Democratic opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton for a federal gas-tax holiday this summer.

"Obama was clearly playing politics with it; Senator McCain responded to a question in a press conference," said spokeswoman Crystal Benton, who also called criticism of McCain by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, an Obama supporter, "disingenuous at best."

The dust-up reinforced the close alliance between Pawlenty and McCain and renewed what has become a constant hum of talk about Pawlenty finding a role in a possible McCain administration.

Following his remarks on McCain's comments, Pawlenty was asked about an earlier pledge to serve out his full term as governor.

"I'm focused on my job staying in Minnesota and being governor," he said. Asked specifically if he stood by his pledge to serve the full four years, Pawlenty said: "That is my intention."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636