On the eve of John McCain's visit today to the Twin Cities, Gov. Tim Pawlenty made his strongest statements to date throwing cold water on speculation about his being picked as the Republican presidential candidate's running mate.

After delivering a midday speech Wednesday to the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce, Pawlenty said in response to a question that "I'm honored to have my name mentioned. The fact is, I haven't been asked, and I don't expect to be asked."

Asked directly what discussions he has had with McCain about the vice presidency, Pawlenty replied: "None."

Similarly, when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Pawlenty a day earlier whether anyone from the McCain campaign had begun vetting him for a spot on the ticket, Pawlenty said, "They have not."

Despite Pawlenty's remarks, Minnesotans will be curious today to see how large a role the governor plays in McCain's public appearances at an invitation-only Town Hall meeting in St. Paul and a private fundraiser in Minneapolis.

Pawlenty is widely considered to be on McCain's short list of vice presidential prospects, and even his seeming dismissal of his own chances won't change that.

"He's lowering expectations. That's smart," said Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a close friend of Pawlenty's. Weaver said it would not be unusual for a prospective vice presidential candidate to dampen expectations while multiple names remain in play.

Among other names still thought to be on McCain's short list are those of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former governors (and former rivals) Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former U.S. Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio.

Pawlenty remains a hot prospect for McCain for very specific reasons, Weaver said.

"I still think he has better than a 50-50 chance because of his personal relationship with McCain," Weaver said. "Everyone I talk to here and in Washington knows they are good friends, and that matters to McCain."

Pawlenty also delivers on key issues that McCain can use to appeal to the broader electorate, Weaver said, such as the environment, renewable energy, housing and market-based health-care reforms.

Pawlenty's potential role as McCain's running mate was lightheartedly referred to more than once Wednesday, with one questioner at the Eden Prairie event addressing "Mr. Vice President." Another questioner noted that the recorded music that played when Pawlenty took the stage "sounded kind of presidential," and Pawlenty allowed that it "sounded kind of weird." It turns out the event's managers had selected the theme music to the Harrison Ford film "Air Force One."

Pawlenty, McCain on same policy page

There is little question that Pawlenty has stepped up his national profile in a major way. Even in local speeches, he now tends to give a broad sweep to his remarks, talking as frequently of America as he does of Minnesota.

During his half-hour speech to the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce at Bearpath Country Club, Pawlenty addressed the challenges of energy and education that confront the nation. On energy, he called for diversifying and increasing supplies, saying that while "there's no one silver bullet ... we need significantly more supply."

Specifically, he referred to the need to invest in clean coal technology and expand the use of biofuels, and he said the nation "has got to reopen the door on nuclear power."

Much of that dovetailed closely with McCain's message of the day on Wednesday, part of a week devoted to laying out his own energy policy. Campaigning in Missouri, McCain called for the construction of 45 nuclear reactors by 2030 and pledged $2 billion a year in federal funds "to make clean coal a reality" -- both measures designed to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Pointedly missing from Pawlenty's laundry list of new energy sources is oil that would be obtained from offshore drilling in U.S. coastal waters, which McCain had made the centerpiece of his energy policy on Tuesday.

Critics take shots

McCain has gotten off to a fast start in Minnesota, with on-the-ground operations, TV ads and a recent SurveyUSA tracking poll that showed him in a statistical dead heat with Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Other polls, including the Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, have shown Obama with a substantial lead over McCain in Minnesota.

McCain's Minnesota itinerary is characteristic of his recent campaigning, in which he has worked at fundraising as he tries to close Obama's daunting financial lead.

McCain's political foes wasted no time Wednesday in taking preemptive shots at him.

The DFL Party, Iraq veterans opposed to the war, neighborhood activists and unions all criticized various parts of his record. The veterans decried McCain's lack of support for expanded benefits for veterans as well as his staunch support of the Iraq war.

But McCain also has a well-known Minnesota political maverick on his side: former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, who represented Minnesota's First Congressional District for years as a Democrat and later ran for governor as the Independence Party candidate. Penny lost that 2002 race to Pawlenty.

On Wednesday, Penny remained optimistic about McCain's chances in Minnesota.

"I told him two and a half years ago that when he made the final decision, I'd be there for him, and I am," said Penny, who is a co-chairman of McCain's fundraiser tonight.

"McCain's profile as a maverick who is fiscally responsible, who opposes pork barrel spending, who works in a bipartisan way with Democrats in Congress on a whole range of issues gives him serious credibility with independent-minded voters in Minnesota," Penny said. "He's demonstrated the kind of bipartisan, forward-looking approach that we sadly find lacking in most Democrat and Republican politicians, and Minnesotans are going to respond to that."

plopez@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 vonste@startribune.com • 612-673-7184