WASHINGTON - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been awarded a prime-time speaking slot next Wednesday at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, boosting his national profile at a time of uncertainty about his political future.

The former two-term governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate will take to the stage with a national television audience just before former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one of the few Bush-era figures to be given a prominent role at the convention.

Pawlenty, a national co-chair in Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, will be part of the convention build-up for the No. 2 man on the ticket, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who will headline the evening program on what will be the third day of the 50,000-person gathering.

Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney soon after dropping out of the presidential race last August, was widely reported to be one of the top contenders for the GOP vice presidential slot. Instead, he has been one of Romney's most high-profile campaign surrogates, stumping around the nation for the GOP ticket.

At 51, Pawlenty will have a chance to make a mark on his party, possibly setting the stage for a future run for office or an administration post if Republicans recapture the White House. "Governor Pawlenty is an experienced leader, like Governor Romney, who knows that the American people deserve a better future," convention spokesman Kyle Downey said.

Also on the schedule the night Pawlenty speaks are several others who had been considered possible Romney running mates, including Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and John Thune of South Dakota. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush, is on the schedule ahead of Pawlenty, who will come to the podium immediately after Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno.

'A great asset'

Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said the program, dubbed "We Can Change It," will show that Romney's approach to the economy is "both optimistic and achievable."

"We want to remind Americans that we don't have to settle for four more years of high unemployment, low pay and deep debt," Priebus said. "We will devote Wednesday night to showing the country that Mitt Romney's 'Plan for a Stronger Middle Class' will restore our country as the best place in the world to find a job, start a business or hire a worker."

Minnesota GOP chairman Pat Shortridge said Pawlenty has earned the high-visibility speaking role. "He has proven himself to be a great leader and a great asset to the Romney-Ryan ticket as we head into November," he said.

Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, are planning to set up shop in Tampa to rebut the GOP convention speeches. Republicans are expected to repay the favor during the Democratic convention nominating President Obama in Charlotte, N.C., the following week.

Pawlenty is planning to be in Tampa next Wednesday and Thursday, the day Romney caps the convention with his acceptance speech. Former gubernatorial aide Brian McClung said Pawlenty will take part in policy forums, speak at various events and do media appearances.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.