WASHINGTON -- Young congressional staffers could get into Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "pretzels and pints" fundraiser at the Capital City Brewing Company Thursday for as little as $25. But a ticket to a more elegant dinner in the red brick Capitol Hill townhouse of Republican operatives John Milne and Deb Anderson was a heftier $5,000.
Sweeping through the back-to-back events, Pawlenty launched the long-anticipated fundraising phase of his new political action committee, widely regarded in national political circles as the first step in his quest for the presidency in 2012.
Brushing aside speculation about a possible White House run, Pawlenty said he was pleased to be surrounded by hundreds of mostly young activists and Hill staffers who crowded together to hear him.
"This is about making sure we make a difference," he said.
The more informal "pretzels and pints" fundraiser, taking place on a patio, was visible to reporters being held at bay on the street next to Union Station. But the private dinner on a quiet leafy city street was strictly a closed-door affair.
Milne and Anderson have hosted gatherings at their home before for Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman and North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr. Milne, 71, a former 3M executive and longtime Washington lobbyist, also has hosted a variety of events at venues around town for GOP lawmakers, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Milne's ties to Minnesota also extend to former Coleman strategist Erich Mische, who went to work in Milne's mCapitol Management shop after leaving Coleman's office in 2006.
Besides 3M, Milne's lobbying clients over the years have included health care, insurance, and biotech companies, along with restaurant chains Buca di Beppo and Parasole Restaurant Holdings Inc.
Anderson, 60, served as the White House director of intergovernmental affairs under former President George H.W. Bush and was once speaker of the South Dakota House. In the early 1990s, Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson appointed her commissioner of the state's Department of Administration.
The couple's long insider credentials have created an opening for Pawlenty's Democratic Party detractors.
"It didn't take very long for Tim Pawlenty to discredit his so-called outsider credentials," said Democratic National Committee press secretary Hari Sevugan. "With his first act on the national stage, Pawlenty's proven he's right at home -- quite literally -- in the D.C. lobbyist culture."
Milne also has close ties to House GOP Leader John Boehner of Ohio, to whom he rented a basement apartment. The arrangement created headlines three years ago because some of Milne's business clients reportedly had an interest in legislation overseen or sponsored by Boehner.
The Washington fundraisers represent Pawlenty's first foray into the national money chase as he establishes himself with the Freedom First PAC, an organization that will enable him to contribute to Republican candidates across the country in next year's elections.
But with an eye on the 2012 presidential election, the PAC also has attracted a highly regarded cadre of GOP operatives with experience on the campaigns of former President George W. Bush and 2008 presidential hopeful John McCain.
The sponsors of the evening's more low-wattage "pretzels and pints" gathering included Minnesota Republican U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen. Also hosting the event was former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, co-chairman of Pawlenty's Freedom First PAC.
"This gives him the resources to be able to reach out on his own and help Republicans around the country," said Kline, expressing total support for Pawlenty's presidential aspirations.
Paulsen was not as quick to give his endorsement but told reporters, "I'm going to do all I can to help him right now."
Weber, like some of the other GOP luminaries in attendance, has emphasized that he signed on to help Pawlenty in his party-building efforts, and not necessarily as an endorsement of his undeclared candidacy.