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In 2008, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the odd man out in a Republican presidential campaign that needed to gamble on its vice presidential pick.
But the 2012 campaign is being led by Mitt Romney, a man not given to rolling the dice, and that has vastly improved Pawlenty's prospects for being on the national ticket.
"The [John] McCain campaign felt like they needed a Hail Mary move to put the campaign in play," said Brian McClung, a close Pawlenty confidant who was at his side during the key moments of the 2008 vice presidential drama.
By contrast, Romney's detailed, methodical style has campaign advisers betting on a safe vice presidential pick -- some even use the word bland -- who won't distract from Romney's desired focus on President Obama and his stewardship of a shaky national economy.
With Obama and Romney running neck-and-neck in major polls, Republicans are looking less at game-changers like Sarah Palin and more at vetted, known quantities.
The Romney campaign, McClung said, has a reputation for thoroughness. "They're careful and methodical. The presidential contest is close nationally and in key battleground states. The setting this year is very different than in 2008."
That calculation is fast making Pawlenty a consensus favorite in a vice presidential selection process that remains a closely guarded secret, one reportedly shared only by Romney and a few top aides.
"Nobody knows," said Romney adviser Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who is close to Pawlenty. "But from everything I hear, I think [Pawlenty] is in good shape."
Pawlenty himself is making the case that dull may be just what Romney needs.
Asked on Fox News this week whether he was "too boring" to get the nod, Pawlenty, who combated a vanilla image during his own brief presidential bid, joked that he could be goaded into showing his "tats." Then he got serious.
'Don't need an entertainer'
"The bottom line is these are serious times," Pawlenty said. "We need seasoned experienced people who get the job done. ... We don't need an entertainer. I'm not as flashy as some, but compared to some others I'm right in there."
Arriving on the national stage from a Democratic-leaning state, highly regarded as a loyal Romney surrogate, Pawlenty appears comfortable at the center of the media vortex swirling around the VP selection process.
With a decision expected soon, speculation has grown so intense that when Pawlenty walked his little dog in Eagan this week, it became national news. Every amiable comment to reporters outside his home, every look -- even Pawlenty's freshly trimmed hair -- has become potentially meaningful in the quest to divine Romney's choice.
Reading the political tea leaves, Vanity Fair recalled that Ann Romney recently said that her husband's running mate will have "the same personality type." And New York Times columnist Gail Collins remarked that Romney and Pawlenty share a penchant for practical jokes.
The speculation is not accidental. Minnesota GOP operative Ben Golnik, who booked Pawlenty media appearances for the McCain campaign in 2008, said it is clear that the Romney campaign is comfortable with Pawlenty's high media visibility.
"That all goes through the campaign," Golnik said. "Pawlenty wouldn't just freelance and do those [appearances] without their signing off on it. That tells me Romney people are comfortable putting him out there."
In fact, one of the top metrics that is being applied to the former two-term governor is that he keeps Romney, and presumably a great number of moderate voters, in their comfort zone.
"There's a great comfort level there," said GOP political guru Ed Rollins, who briefly ran Rep. Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign last fall. "What Romney has done historically is develop a comfort level with people, and so much of the VP is about a comfort level."
Rollins believes that part of the comfort level has been enhanced by Pawlenty's association with Weber, a respected GOP strategist and experienced Washington power broker.
Weber and Pawlenty both came out for Romney soon after Pawlenty ended his bid for the GOP nomination last summer. Since then, Pawlenty has become an increasingly frequent surrogate for Romney on the campaign trail and on TV.
Even though Democrats have long claimed Pawlenty was the state's most conservative governor in modern history, Republicans at home have not always been persuaded. Throughout his tenure, he was criticized by some in his own party for supporting positions they thought too moderate -- another trait he shares with Romney, who also governed a blue-leaning state.
Pawlenty "was as conservative as Minnesota would let him be, but he's made some mistakes," said Andy Parrish, a Minnesota Republican operative who worked for Bachmann's presidential campaign when she went up against Pawlenty.
Ticking off Pawlenty's former campaign against global warming and one-time support for cap-and-trade environmental policy, Parrish said that Pawlenty "governed as a moderate Republican."
The base, he said, "I don't think cares for him all that much. ... Don't get me wrong. Tim's a great Republican. He's just not a conservative."
But a growing number of pundits continue to put Pawlenty at the top of their lists, including RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende, who built an option matrix that examines factors such as loyalty, swing-state appeal, and personal biography.
Balanced against Romney's image as a millionaire businessman and investor, Pawlenty brings an appealing, blue-collar narrative as the son of a truck driver growing up in South St. Paul. And while Pawlenty's friendly, low-key demeanor may not excite the GOP's Tea Party base, he doesn't offend it either.
In an election expected to hinge on independent voters, some analysts say that Pawlenty's weaknesses as a presidential candidate have become his strengths as a VP prospect.
"There was a lot of desire for red meat, and Pawlenty doesn't have the temperament for that," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "But in the general election, Pawlenty is not going to scare people like Sarah Palin scared people. ... The Palin experience boosts his stock this time."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb Kevin Diaz • Twitter: @StribDiaz