CONCORD, N.H. - Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, launched what could be the unofficial start of the 2012 primary season Wednesday, amid a wintry landscape of snow and frozen lakes.
Just like home.
Of his many travels in an increasingly likely bid for the White House, the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire could offer some of the most favorable ground yet for the Republican governor of a northern swing state.
"We share something besides hockey," Pawlenty told about 200 New Hampshire Republican Party members. "We share conservative values."
Independent, flinty and civically engaged, New Hampshire Republicans say they are open to a rising national leader and prospective presidential contender debuting a national message.
"New Hampshire is a proving ground," said New Hampshire political consultant Joel Maiola, former chief of staff for the state's senior U.S. senator, Republican Judd Gregg. "If you work hard at it, and from what I hear he's a hard worker and a personable guy, he'll be a good fit."
This is different terrain from the first caucus state of Iowa, where social conservatives provide a natural organizational base for well-known, battle-tested figures such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. Locals here say Granite State Republicans skew toward the fiscally conservative mainstream -- the space Pawlenty occupies in that tiny part of the national consciousness that has heard of him.
"It's better ground for Pawlenty, who doesn't come with a Religious Right tag," said Dante Scala, chair of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire.
While he is a consistent opponent of abortion rights and gay marriage, Pawlenty made news in a handful of New Hampshire radio interviews Wednesday as a champion of federal spending restraint.
"One of the things that I think we should do is ask for a federal constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, with the exception for war, natural disasters and emergencies," he told WGIR-AM Radio in Manchester. "We have to give the president line-item veto authority and we need to reward politicians who are willing to say no, instead of rewarding politicians who are willing to say yes."
Another factor that could work in Pawlenty's favor is the all-but-certain absence of a Democratic primary fight in 2012. That could give a mainstream conservative a chance to win over political independents or "undeclared" voters in New Hampshire, who make up about a fifth of the state's electorate and who can cast ballots in either party primary.
"They play a bigger role with only one party having a contest," said New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
While courting the party's conservative base in places such as Iowa, which he visited last month, Pawlenty has tended to flirt with the right, such as his endorsement of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in New York's 23rd congressional district.
But at a fundraiser for New Hampshire State Senate Republicans on Wednesday night, Pawlenty stuck mainly to budget and economic themes, taking particular aim at deficit spending under the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress.
"The federal government is running a Ponzi scheme on the Potomac, and it needs to come to an end," Pawlenty said.
For local Republicans such as State Senate Minority Leader Peter Bragdon, it was the first chance to see Pawlenty up close since the Minnesota governor stumped here for John McCain, who won New Hampshire's presidential primaries in 2000 and 2008.
"It's a good, solid conservative message," Bragdon said of Pawlenty's remarks. "Not foaming at the mouth."
The 49-year-old governor's latest visit to this crucial primary battleground is his first since announcing last June that he would step down next year, when his second term ends.
That, in effect, imbued Pawlenty's visit to Concord's Grappone Center with the air of an unofficial campaign launch, even as he continues to insist publicly that he has made no plans to run for president in 2012.
"You don't have to say that here," said former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath. "We get the joke."
The retail quality of this visit contrasts with some Pawlenty's recent insider stops in Washington and elsewhere. Michael Dennehy, a former McCain adviser who arranged Pawlenty's New Hampshire visit, said the $50-a-person fundraiser was purposely set at an affordable price to attract "grass-roots" activists from around the state.
New Hampshire also sits in the back yard of ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a wealthy native son who ran second to McCain in the 2008 Republican primary. But local analysts say the field in New Hampshire is wide open for 2012.
"The good news for Romney is he's well known," Scala said. "The bad news for Romney is New Hampshire voters have looked at him once and said no."
Minnesota DFLers made a point Wednesday of noting Pawlenty's poor showing in recent national polls, pegging him as an over-eager unknown.
But a long-shot quest isn't necessarily a detriment in New Hampshire, which has made a cottage industry of shaping national political campaigns from the ground up.
The leading example? Minnesota Democrat Eugene McCarthy, whose better-than-expected showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primaries knocked Lyndon Johnson out of the White House.
"He really put us on the map," Gardner said of McCarthy. "We really treasure the primary because it gives the little guy a chance. You don't need to have the most money or the most fame."
Kevin Diaz • 202-405-2753