The vetting of possible vice-presidential candidates is approaching an end, and several Republicans close to the campaign believe Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman stand out among others who have been considered.
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, stands with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty during a campaign stop at Cornwall Iron Furnace, on Saturday, June 16, 2012, in Cornwall, Pa.
It was four years ago this summer, when Tim Pawlenty ranked high on the list of John McCain's potential running mates, and Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, were plowing through a voluminous questionnaire probing deep into their finances and almost every other aspect of their lives.
"I remember the two of us joking one night at some inhumane hour, 'No way is Mitt Romney doing this by himself!'" Pawlenty later wrote in his book. "We had a good laugh over that."After a short-lived presidential bid of his own last year, Pawlenty is again being considered for the Republican ticket. His fate is in the hands of Romney, a rival-turned-friend, who is on the cusp of announcing his vice-presidential selection. Romney has reached a decision, his friends believe, and he may disclose it as soon as this week.
The country received only an abbreviated introduction to Pawlenty, 51, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, whose working-class roots, experience outside Washington and evangelical faith have formed the core of his appeal to a broad spectrum of Republicans.
While Romney has kept more distance from the rest of his primary challengers, he has embraced Pawlenty, seeking his advice about running against President Barack Obama and dispatching him to Republican events on his behalf. They began forging a closer relationship last year on a visit to the Romney family's lakeside home in New Hampshire, aides said, and during debates this year when Pawlenty often traveled with the Romney campaign after dropping out of the race himself.
He has emerged as one of the most energetic cheerleaders and forceful defenders of Romney, firing back against Republican skeptics and Democratic critics alike. All but forgotten are the days when Pawlenty coined the troublemaking term "Obamneycare," suggesting few differences existed between the health care plans of Romney and Obama.
The conservative National Review now describes Pawlenty as "Romney's traveling salesman." While other potential vice-presidential candidates like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have day jobs that limit their availability, Pawlenty, who has no other full-time position, is the political equivalent of an empty nester, available to do whatever Romney asks.
"I'm happy to help where I can," Pawlenty said in a brief interview from his home in Eagan, a suburb of Minneapolis. He deflects questions about being Romney's partner, saying, "I think I can best serve him in other ways, but anybody would be honored to be asked."
The vetting of possible vice-presidential candidates is approaching an end. It has been a deeply secretive process overseen by one of Romney's closest confidants, Beth Myers. But several Republicans close to the campaign believe Pawlenty and Portman stand out among others who have been considered.
In 2008, as McCain was narrowing in on a running mate, several aides recommended Pawlenty. Others pushed for a bolder choice, a candidate who would create more enthusiasm among Republican activists. Four years later, being passed over for Sarah Palin may work in Pawlenty's favor.
"In a lot of ways, he's the anti-Palin," said Steve Schmidt, a strategist to McCain who expressed regret for her selection. "Here's a guy who is prepared to be president on Day 1. In any normal year, he would have been the pick."
But some of the same perceived shortcomings of Pawlenty still exist among his detractors, including the critique that he lacks a fiery presence and the ability to excite a crowd.
Associates of Romney say he believes Pawlenty has gotten a bad rap, and the comfort level between the men outweighs any concerns of a potential ticket being seen as dull.
A year ago, as the Republican presidential field was emerging, aides to Obama kept close tabs on Pawlenty and his plain-spoken message as a so-called Sam's Club Republican. They spoke privately about how his blue-collar upbringing in South Saint Paul, Minn., in the shadows of stockyards, could be compelling to voters with the economy on their minds.
Now, as the president and his re-election campaign are relentlessly hammering away at Romney's wealth and business background, some admirers of Pawlenty believe that he could help ease the criticism that the Republican ticket does not appeal to working-class voters.
"An appealing counterbalance to Romney being a son of a wealthy man and going to elite schools is Pawlenty being the son of a truck driver who went to the University of Minnesota," said Ray Washburne, a Dallas businessman who began helping Romney's campaign after Pawlenty left the race. "He's not elite in any sense of the word."
One thing Pawlenty may not bring to a Republican ticket is the benefit of geography. (A key factor in Portman's favor, Republicans believe, is the assumption that he could help the Republicans take Ohio.) But while a Republican presidential candidate has not won Minnesota since 1972, party leaders say Pawlenty is a credible messenger on the economy in swing states across the industrial Midwest.
It remains a question whether Pawlenty's brief presidential run increased or lowered his stature as a figure in the Republican Party. His candidacy was too short to allow a thorough vetting, but there was time for him to explain some elements of his record as Minnesota governor.
He renounced his support for cap-and-trade climate change legislation, saying, "It's fair to say I've had a change of position and change of view, and the reason is it's a dumb idea." He also received absolution from some fiscal conservatives even though he raised the cigarette tax, which he called a "health impact fee."
Grover G. Norquist, who leads the group Americans for Tax Reform, said the full scope of Pawlenty's record was strong, despite the tax increase. He pointed to his leadership on a 44-day transit strike in 2004, where he won a fight over compensation and retirement benefits.
"He was a little Scott Walker before Scott Walker," Norquist said, referring to the Wisconsin governor hailed among conservatives for surviving a recall election last month after cutting collective bargaining rights for most public workers.
While Pawlenty left the Republican primary long before voters weighed in, he won an early poll of evangelical Christian leaders, a constituency Romney has had difficulty winning over. His longtime pastor, Leith Anderson, who is also president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said Pawlenty's faith could help the Republican ticket.
"Tim Pawlenty is an evangelical and evangelicals like other evangelicals," Anderson said in an interview.
Pawlenty, who joined several corporate boards and is looking for other opportunities in the private sector after spending nearly two decades as a legislator and governor, has gradually adjusted his posture on a vice-presidential candidacy. In April, he told Fox News, "I've taken my name off the list."
A month later, after he received a call, his friends believe, from Romney, he said he would be honored to be selected.