The governor's support for reduced carbon emissions came in the national spotlight, especially with his ties to John McCain.
WASHINGTON - With speculation mounting about his prospects as a potential vice presidential candidate, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took the national stage Saturday to call for a "clean energy future" of reduced carbon emissions.
"If you look at all the presidential candidates remaining on both sides of the aisle, they embrace these issues in varying degrees," Pawlenty said at the opening winter meeting of the National Governors Association, which he chairs this year. "What you're seeing now is a great momentum and in many ways a bipartisan consensus about the need to make progress in this area."
Pawlenty's call comes at a critical time in the election season, with the Republican Party appearing to solidify its support around presumptive nominee John McCain, the Arizona senator who is widely believed to have Pawlenty on his list of potential running mates.
"This is his first visit to Washington since the GOP fixed on McCain as a presidential candidate," said former Republican U.S. Rep. Vin Weber from Minnesota.
Weber, now a Washington lobbyist, supported McCain's 2000 bid for the presidency. "The scrutiny on anything he says will be that much greater."
Reducing carbon emissions is a global issue likely to figure prominently in this year's presidential campaign, and Pawlenty has made a green energy initiative the centerpiece of his term a chairman of the bipartisan group of governors.
Pawlenty and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, co-chair a task force focusing on conservation, alternative fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Political analysts say the effort could bring national visibility to Pawlenty's recent efforts to find state-level responses to climate change and energy independence.
"He has identified himself with environmental protection in a way that most Republican leaders have not," said Joseph G. Peschek, professor of political science at Hamline University. "He'll be able to bring that to the national stage with his address in Washington."
Minnesota environmentalists remain cautious in their praise of Pawlenty.
"I would tepidly compliment our governor on bringing attention and providing some leadership in the Midwest on this issue and within his party," Kevin Reuther, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "But like anything, the devil's in the details. It sort of reminds me of the 'Where's the Beef?' commercial from a while back."
Reuther noted that while the governor did sign legislation for reducing carbon levels in Minnesota, the state has yet to implement policy recommendations for how to achieve those goals.
"I think that he needs to step up to the plate if wants to be considered green and do more than talk," Reuther said. "We need to see some actions."
While committing to the goal of reducing greenhouse gasses, Pawlenty remains a fiscal conservative who has advocated for limited government spending and "reasonable" measures that will not set back the economy. "The economic implications of this initiative are very important," he said.
"I think he wants to be both a traditional, fiscal conservative -- hold spending down, not raising taxes -- but also promote environmental initiatives," Peschek said. "To the extent that those initiatives are going to involve new spending or cost money, there may be a conflict there, or at least some tension."
That tension was addressed at the governors' meeting by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a Minnesota native who challenged the political leaders to harness the nation's technological know-how. "We do not have the systematic response we need," Friedman told the governors.
In addition to spearheading the governors' new energy task force, Pawlenty will speak Tuesday at a conference of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a nonprofit group that argues it is possible to protect the climate and sustain economic growth.
McCain has angered some conservatives and industry groups by attacking the problem of global warming with legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions with a national "cap-and-trade" system. Pawlenty has endorsed a similar plan on a regional level.
Now seen as a potential McCain running mate -- he stuck by the Arizona senator this summer when the presidential candidate's campaign was all but bankrupt -- Pawlenty is suddenly finding his views scrutinized through a national political prism.
"I would expect that various political observers will be scrutinizing what the governor has to say from a political and not just a policy perspective, and viewing it almost as part of an auditioning process,'' Peschek said.
Said Weber: "He's on everybody's list. High on some lists and low on others. The only one who knows for sure is John McCain."