If the road to the White House is paved with dollars, Gov. Tim Pawlenty added a few bricks to his path Wednesday night.

He picked up perhaps as much as $300,000 at the first major fundraiser for his political action committee, called Freedom First PAC, at the Minneapolis Hilton.

Pawlenty thanked a crowd of about 300 donors who each gave $1,000 for joining him "on this journey and mission that we are on." He said his goal was to "launch an American comeback in this county."

"We're adrift," he said during the event's opening cocktail party. "There's a sense that the government can do it all, and you and I know that's a very flawed premise."

The event also included a dinner at which the minimum donation was $5,000, and the suggested contribution for chairs went up to $100,000. It is likely to be the biggest Republican fundraiser in Minnesota in 2009.

The PAC "will provide Governor Pawlenty with the resources and infrastructure he needs to spread our conservative message in Minnesota and across America," the invitation said.

It also will provide the governor, who is not running for a third term, some of the cash and chits he will need should he decide to run for president in 2012.

But as he has before, Pawlenty downplayed the connection between the PAC and his potential political ambitions.

He told reporters that he reminded some donors that "this PAC is about 2010" -- the next big election year -- not the 2012 presidential race. Pawlenty also had a meeting at the hotel before the event to explain the PAC's goals and operations to state Republican officials.

Big donor face-time

The dinner's attendees included leaders in Minnesota's business community and Republican funders.

Among the fundraiser's chairs was Bill Cooper, TCF Financial Corp. CEO and a former chair of the state Republican party; Tom Stauber the owner of Edwards Sales building-supply company and his wife, Karen, who have contributed more than $150,000 to Republican causes, and Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, who, with his wife, Denise, made more than $75,000 in political donations last year.

The revelers included some folks brought in not for their wallets but for their low-level Hollywood wattage.

Actor John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Clavin on "Cheers," flew in to attend because he supports the "Judeo-Christian work ethic that built this country" and wants to support Pawlenty's efforts.

Ratzenberger, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in 2012 in Connecticut, said he would support Pawlenty if he ran for president.

Actor Jon Voight, who also attended, wasn't ready to endorse the governor's potential presidential run but still said of him, "it's very admirable what he's doing, and I think it's what we need."

Voight, who learned of the event from a staffer working for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., will be in Washington today to join in Bachmann's effort to protest efforts by Democrats to overhaul health insurance.

Jim Miller, a certified public accountant from Plymouth, also attended simply because, he said, "I like Pawlenty and I'm a staunch Republican."

And should Pawlenty run for president?, Miller was asked. "Oh, yeah," he said.

The PAC, which started raising money last month in Washington, has also started to give money away. Pawlenty made his first, and so far only, PAC contribution last week to the Conservative Party candidate in a New York special congressional election. He endorsed conservative Doug Hoffman over the Republican Party candidate in that upstate New York race. On Tuesday, Hoffman lost to the Democrat in the race.

Pawlenty will continue celebrating his national political debut this weekend. He is scheduled to give a keynote speech on Saturday to Republicans in Iowa, an early presidential caucus state.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164