Formation of PAC for Pawlenty heightens talk of presidential bid

Fundraising committee signals to many that governor is eyeing White House.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is about to pick up a needed accoutrement for a 2012 presidential run -- a national fundraising committee.

The Freedom First political action committee would allow Pawlenty to donate to Republican campaigns around the country and finance his own travel, payroll and fundraising expenses.

Its creation, which will become formal in coming weeks, elevates Pawlenty to a new stratum of national GOP leaders and helps him lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid. Invitations to the PAC's inaugural event, a high-priced dinner at the Minneapolis Hilton on Nov. 4, began circulating this week. A copy was obtained by the Star Tribune.

Pawlenty demurred when asked if the PAC's creation should be seen as yet another step to seed a potential 2012 run.

"It is just the opposite," Pawlenty said Tuesday. "This undertaking, as we plan it and envision it, would be to help other candidates on a federal level."

Politicians can have PACs and not run for higher office, but it is tough these days to run for higher office without a national fundraising committee.

Technically, the committee's work cannot be used to directly fuel a run for president. But it can help Pawlenty extend his reach across the country, thereby building up chits for a potential run.

Other likely 2012 Republican presidential contenders have long had political fundraising committees -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has Sarah PAC, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has the Free and Strong America PAC and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has Huck PAC.

"Setting up a committee to fundraise is almost an essential step if you are going to make a bid for the presidency," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. It is particularly notable that Pawlenty, a state politician, is setting up a federal fundraising committee -- that makes it clear he is considering a run for national office, Levinthal said.

The kickoff dinner is expected to raise money at a rate undemonstrated by Pawlenty in his two terms as governor. The invitation makes clear that "event chairs" are expected to raise $100,000 for that night. A "co-chair" title will cost $50,000 and individual dinner and reception tickets will set donors back $5,000.

Major fundraiser

The fundraiser could be one of the biggest of 2009, which hasn't featured any major presidential fundraisers in the state. A Republican donor with knowledge of Minnesota's donor community said it is "reasonable" to expect that Pawlenty would raise about $250,000 at the event.

The cash from the November dinner may not be the first money Freedom First will collect. The papers creating the committee will be filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in coming weeks and it can begin collecting cash as soon as it is formed, said Alex Conant, a volunteer on Pawlenty's political staff.

Because Pawlenty is not officially a candidate, he does not need to disclose who pays for his travel and expenses.

The PAC will have to file regular reports with the FEC. If Pawlenty supporters create the organization in October, as expected, the first of those reports would come out in January.

"The travel that I undertake now is usually paid by the group that invites me to speak, which is typically the Republican parties or Republican organizations, and we don't have any lack of invitations," he said Tuesday.

Those appearances may be paying off. Last weekend, Pawlenty received 12 percent in a straw poll of socially conservative activists at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. Huckabee, a 2008 candidate for president, won first place by a large margin, with 170 votes in the early beauty contest for potential Republican contenders.

Pawlenty was in a four-way tie for second place. With 73 votes, he received one vote less than Romney, one vote more than Palin, and two more than U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.

The Minnesota governor also has stirred national Democrats. The Democratic National Committee last week picked Pawlenty as the first Republican to "call out" on health care and devoted a website to him. DNC Press Secretary Hari Sevugan called Pawlenty's PAC "evidence that Pawlenty is, at best, a part-time governor who cares more about his national political ambitions than the people of Minnesota."

Pawlenty maintains that he has not decided what he will do when he leaves the governor's office at the end of next year and that his name recognition outside Minnesota remains low.

"I think the Value Voters know who I am because I went and spoke to them, but beyond that, no, I don't think many people know who I am," he said.

Minnesotans are more sure Pawlenty is running for president than he is -- a recent Rasmussen poll found that 72 percent believe he is likely to run. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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