WASHINGTON - Mapping out a route to the White House, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appears headed for a fork in the road: One way goes through fiscally conservative New Hampshire, the other through socially conservative Iowa.
While he courts Republicans in both early primary states, keeping his options open, modern presidential history suggests Pawlenty will have to choose.
No nonincumbent GOP candidate has ever won the Iowa caucuses and the Granite State primary.
"These two electorates have gone in different directions," said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala.
With neighboring Iowa looking increasingly like Pawlenty's better bet in 2012, the Minnesota Republican has focused more of his attention and message on the Hawkeye State than on New Hampshire. He has visited Iowa twice in the past month, barnstorming for local candidates and grabbing headlines with rock-ribbed conservative pronouncements on immigration, gay marriage and the ground zero Islamic mosque proposed in New York.
As Pawlenty's poll numbers lag in the low single digits in both states, some strategists say he has little choice but to fire up his public profile. In Iowa, that means connecting solidly with social conservatives, ground he has cultivated assiduously in the year since he formed his Freedom First PAC, a national political organization.
"It's not just Iowa," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He's also got to be thinking of South Carolina and Nevada. Three of the first four Republican electorates are very conservative socially."
Pawlenty and his closest aides say there has been no political transformation, noting he always campaigned and governed as a conservative.
"I don't think there's a calculation in his effort to move to the right," said former Minnesota member of Congress Vin Weber, co-chairman of Pawlenty's PAC. "He understands he's moving to another level in terms of national politics, and he wants to make sure people understand he has the bona fides of a conservative, which he does."
Pawlenty, for his part, says his bedrock conservative principles on issues like taxes and gay marriage have not changed and could appeal to social and fiscal conservatives in either state.
"I've always functioned as a conservative in a state that leans blue," he said Thursday in an interview. "So I'm familiar with both kinds of environments."
At the dawn of his legislative career in 1993, Pawlenty was among a small clutch of House Republicans who voted for the Human Rights Amendment, the first state legislation in the country to outlaw housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
By 2002, when he first ran for governor, Pawlenty reversed himself, calling it the only vote he regretted casting.
Recently, Pawlenty has raised eyebrows with a series of provocative assertions. The most quoted was his remark suggesting the proposed New York mosque would "degrade or disrespect" the memory of Sept. 11, 2001, a statement that drew a retraction demand from several Minnesota Muslim groups.
In Iowa last week, Pawlenty made news by saying voters have a right to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices over a decision that legalized gay marriage. "I would want to look at their records, but to the extent that they have opined or decided they are not going to support traditional marriage, that's not something I would agree with," he told the Associated Press.
On immigration, Pawlenty said Minnesota should consider making English its official language. He has also embraced efforts to change the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship, a position that puts him to the right of Mike Huckabee, Iowa's 2008 GOP winner.
As he looks to 2012, Pawlenty will have more media platforms to opine from on a wider array of national topics than ever before. While some of his positions might sound new to national voters, others reflect new emphasis or elaborate on old topics.
He told CNN last April that he sympathized with Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants but was concerned about "the definition of what is the probable cause to believe that somebody is here illegally."
Pawlenty now defends the law fully, saying the problem has reached a "boiling point." Pawlenty said he has consistently taken a hard line on illegal immigration and supported the Arizona law almost from the outset, once he read it.
Pawlenty has more forcefully been accused of migrating on the superheated topic of climate change. Once a leading advocate of a regional cap-and-trade pact to control greenhouse gases, he has since come out against a national cap-and-trade plan proposed by Democrats in Congress. The St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact website rated his stance "a full flop."
Pawlenty said that once he fully examined the national plan, he "came to the conclusion it was a bad idea."
Not going solo
If Pawlenty seems to burnish his conservative credentials, he's hardly the only one in a GOP party brimming with new Tea Party energy.
"Everyone's doing what seems to be the safe thing, which is run to the right," Scala said. That's particularly true for those Republicans with an eye on Iowa.
New Hampshire's Republican primary voters have shown a marked preference for more moderate GOP candidates, and in 2008 threw their support behind Sen. John McCain.
Pawlenty's path may be determined partly by potential rivals. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a part-time resident of New Hampshire and a dominant political figure in that state. Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin are cultural conservatives who poll well in Iowa.
Pawlenty advisers say Pawlenty can appeal to New Hampshire's flinty fiscal conservatives with his record of budget cuts. But in Iowa, he can throw in his evangelical Midwestern roots. Said Iowa GOP Party Chairman Matthew Strawn: "The vast majority of Iowa Republican voters are social and fiscal conservatives."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.