With A-listers falling all around him, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential prospects, though still distant, have brightened this summer as he crisscrosses the country on a mission to rebrand and revitalize his party.
Just since announcing in early June that he won't seek another term (a crucial step for 2012 candidates), Pawlenty has trekked to Arkansas; Washington, D.C.; Nashville and Aspen, Colo., for the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival.
This week he's off to San Diego and next month will take him to Chicago and Puerto Rico -- a featured speaker for Republicans at each spot.
In between, Pawlenty worked in a week-long trip to the Middle East, visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and meeting with military and diplomatic leaders.
As he contemplates his next move, Pawlenty may be at a unique juncture in party politics: his party is at a low point in terms of message and also lacks a deep bench. A window has opened that could allow a dark horse -- a little-known, non-wealthy, Midwestern governor -- a chance to break through in a way that may not be possible even a year from now.
What, exactly, is Pawlenty's new GOP message? At Aspen, he said that Republicans should be hopeful and optimistic, that voters "don't want to follow cranks."
A fiscal and social conservative, Pawlenty said that Republican rhetoric has run too hot and angry in recent years, alienating potential new voters and so-called Reagan Democrats looking for a more positive message.
But Pawlenty wants to do more than just strike a different tone.
In a recent interview with the Star Tribune, he said that Republicans had lost major blocs of voters in the last election by failing to produce "relevant, modern and impactful" ideas for emerging issues: health care, education and energy.
Education, he said, "should be the civil rights issue of our time," and could be the GOP's surest path to gaining favor among the Hispanics, blacks and lower-income voters who catapulted Barack Obama into the presidency.
Democrats, he said, "are handcuffed by teachers unions and they won't let you change much of anything." National party leaders "were late to take the lead on energy and environmental issues, and we paid a price for that." Democrats have been timid about what Pawlenty sees as the best alternative to pollution and emissions control: more and better nuclear power plants.
On health care, Pawlenty made the talk show circuit with harsh words for Obama's health plan, labeling it "a joke" and accusing Obama of "scamming the American public" by promising both greater accessibility and lower costs.
But ideas and soundbites alone won't propel Pawlenty onto the national stage. For that, he'll have to create the stirring persona, the American narrative, that voters look for in leaders.
Sam's Club, not country club
The governor will get a chance to roll out the Pawlenty saga when he speaks before the Republican National Committee at its summer meeting in San Diego on Thursday.
That's where Pawlenty will introduce his decidedly blue-collar, South St. Paul working class roots: Son of a truck driver who grew up among the bustle and stink of meat-packing plants, losing his mother as a teenager and working his way through college with the help of a close-knit clan of siblings.
It was that upbringing that sparked a memorable phrase that helped bring Pawlenty to national attention. In a speech several years ago, while his party was still governed by a scion of one of America's most prominent and old-monied families, Pawlenty told heartland Republicans: "We need to be the party of Sam's Club, not the country club."
If he runs -- and so far, he hasn't decided -- Pawlenty faces huge logistical tasks to launch a campaign. Build a national political organization. Go after big-time donors before they're locked up by others. Refine a compelling persona, a distinctive message.
He would have less than a year to do it.
Climbing Mount Everest
"He's got the beginnings of a message, but he's got limited time to flesh it out," said Larry Sabato, a national political analyst who heads the University of Virgina Center for Politics.
Sabato, who was dismissive a year ago when Pawlenty was a surrogate for presidential candidate John McCain, now ranks the Republican field as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Pawlenty and "Candidate X" -- an as-yet unknown person sure to emerge from the 2010 elections.
"There is such a vacuum in the Republican Party that Pawlenty's got a rare opportunity," Sabato said. "In another year, he would have been an also-ran." Not since Jimmy Carter burst out of Georgia has a party been in such disarray that a long shot has a shot at the top, he said. "That's not because Pawlenty is strong. It's because the (Republican) field right now is so weak. He'd still have to climb several Mount Everests."
One of those Everests touches a sore spot for Pawlenty: the national perception that he's a bit "vanilla," as some pundits have labeled him.
"I know some of that gets said, but which Republican leader nationally do you look at and say, 'Wow, he's exciting or she's exciting!'" Pawlenty said, laughing even as he winced at the word vanilla. "I mean, gimme a break. I at least meet that standard. If you just look at the top leaders of the Republican Party, I'm at least in range on the excitement meter."
But he knows he comes across stiffer on the national stage than at home, where he first got noticed for his sharp wit as House majority leader.
"I've been maybe a little too repressed with my comments because everything gets twisted and contorted (nationally)," he said. "You just have to be so careful that you run the risk of being boring because you're too cautious."
Always careful about his public image, Pawlenty's caution on the national stage has been intentional, born of an intense desire not to screw up.
"If you make a joke and part of the joke gets clipped, it later shows up as statement of fact," he said. Pawlenty's last joke, a crack while fishing about how he can't get his wife to sleep with him, went viral and has dogged him ever since.
Sabato said that with sexual escapades marking the downfall of at least two would-be presidential candidates, a slightly bland image might work in Pawlenty's favor.
"Vanilla may not be exciting, but it doesn't run off to Argentina," he said, a dry reference to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's recent affair.
Time to get serious
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman turned Republican strategist and lobbyist, said he would put Pawlenty "in the top three of potential candidates for 2012."
A strong Romney supporter in 2008, Weber called Pawlenty's travel schedule "impressive" for this point in the political cycle. "He's got overtly political events, but some idea-oriented things, like Aspen, some foreign travel."
Pawlenty quipped that he was "in demand" only because "I'm free. Some of these speakers charge 50 grand a speech."
But Weber noted that many will give free speeches, but few are invited.
Pawlenty's next big decision, Weber said, will be whether to get serious about running.
"Right now, he's just trying to make sure that option is available," Weber said. "If he wants to take the next step, he probably has to make that decision by early 2010 or he'll be behind the curve."
Asked whether he would leave Romney to support a Pawlenty bid, Weber, a friend to both, laughed and said, "I'm not going to talk about that yet."
Patricia Lopez • 612-673-7028