Wearing his freshly risen national profile lightly, Gov. Tim Pawlenty strode onto the stage of the GOP state convention like the old friend you know who has suddenly become a superstar. ¶ In marked contrast to Friday's friction at the convention, Pawlenty offered weary delegates a message of hope and optimism on Saturday that carried echoes of a reverse-field Barack Obama.

"People need something future-leaning, forward, positive and hopeful," Pawlenty said. "That needs to be the tone and tenor of our party. ... People want to be part of something exciting, positive, meaningful."

The challenge, he said, will be in besting a party that can base its appeal on something for nothing.

"We have a higher burden because we're running against people giving away free stuff. You got a problem, we got a program. It's hard to compete against a competitor that gives away free stuff. You and I know it's not free."

Tapping into a common theme among some Republicans, Pawlenty acknowledged that the party has fumbled at times and must find a way to reconnect with center-right and independent voters. "We have not done as good a job translating our ideas into meaningful connections" with working-class Americans, he said.

Pawlenty advised Republicans to dial the clock back nearly 30 years and return to the sunny optimism of President Ronald Reagan. In uncertain times, he said, people "deserve leaders who are hopeful, optimistic, decent," who can carry a positive Republican message that excites and energizes voters.

Pawlenty did his best to energize a convention that was fractured during the weekend by divisions among traditional Republicans and a sizable faction supporting libertarian firebrand Ron Paul.

Spare to the point of severity, there was little partylike atmosphere at a convention where delegates spent much time sparring among themselves over whether to seat the Paulites at the national convention in St. Paul.

Pawlenty's presence at the convention was brief, lasting less than an hour. On Friday, during the convention's main business, he was in North Carolina campaigning for a congressional candidate. By midmorning Saturday, he had left for the Twin Cities to offer godspeed to a National Guard troop deployment.

Veep questions

Shortly before he stepped onstage, Pawlenty was peppered with questions from reporters about his vice presidential prospects. As always, he demurred, saying his focus was on being governor. He has become a frequent surrogate for presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain and is among the top prospects to be McCain's running mate.

On Saturday, Pawlenty was decidedly coy about his chances, saying he hadn't talked to McCain for a month and professed not to know whether he is the subject of background checks or is even under serious consideration. That moved one reporter to ask whether the press corps was crazy to continue querying him about his chances. "It would be disrespectful for me to call you crazy," he said with a smile.

Pawlenty also plugged his role in the last legislative session during his speech to delegates, telling them he was "proud to be the record-holder for the most vetoes issued in any year in Minnesota history."

Faced with Republican numbers in the state House at near-record lows, Pawlenty openly wished for a new Republican majority and said that in the meantime, "I have strapped on the political goalie equipment." Whipping out a red pen, he said that he had brought "his friend" along to the convention, and that when he found clinkers among the hundreds of bills passed, "I will have no hesitation to use this pen now and down the road."

Touching briefly on his early life, Pawlenty talked of his brothers and sister -- onetime union Democrats who, he said, have since converted -- and the mother who died when he was a teenager.

"My mother said gratitude opens the door to more blessing," he said, "We live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world. ... Let's be grateful for what we've got."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288