The governor's presidential campaign hasn't caught fire nationally, but there's time. "I think he's on the radar. It's a pretty distant signal, though," said GOP strategist John Feehery
As he readies for what many assume will be a bid for president in 2012, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is making the classic moves to get there.
He spends weekends campaigning in key states and stumping for Republicans across the country. He has raised money, built a political organization and is a frequent guest on national television shows.
But he remains in the single digits in most polls and has yet to deliver the crystallizing speech or public moment that can catapult a presidential contender to the forefront of American consciousness.
"The excitement factor, I would say, is lacking," said Kevin Horne, an 18-year-old Pawlenty fan from Pennsylvania who recently heard Pawlenty speak in Washington. He adds, off-camera, Pawlenty is a "great guy."
It's early, and Pawlenty has room to develop, but for now, if there were a political report card on his national political progress, it might read: Has potential, needs improvement.
"I think he's on the radar. It's a pretty distant signal, though," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist in Washington who doesn't have a 2012 favorite. "Right now, Pawlenty is not that controversial and is not that interesting. ... He doesn't have any clear constituency."
As the governor propels himself to the national stage, he has had some stumbles.
At a recent gathering of the national Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Pawlenty was widely panned by political observers for suggesting conservatives should "take a 9-iron and smash the window out of big government" the way Tiger Woods' wife smashed her husband's Cadillac.
Late last year, the governor said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe might have a "problem" if she disagrees with her party too often. He later backtracked and acknowledged his comments were less than artful.
Then there's Pawlenty's speechifying to large crowds, for which GOP strategists use such adjectives as "just OK" and "solid."
Horne, the Pennsylvania college student who witnessed Pawlenty's CPAC speech in person, said the address was "all right" but he had seen it before on YouTube.
After the speech, Pawlenty received only 6 percent in the conservatives' presidential straw poll.
Pawlenty's lack of political traction doesn't knock him out of the presidential sweepstakes. In fact, he remains in high demand as a speaker and will travel to both Iowa and New Hampshire again in coming weeks. Few White House wannabes look like giants this early in the election process, said University of Texas government Prof. Daron Shaw.
Kevin Shuvalov, a former regional political director for the Republican National Committee who served a similar role for Bush-Cheney 2000, said Pawlenty can develop his stump speech talent.
"I don't think anybody has that when he starts running," Shuvalov said.
Pawlenty does better than many politicians in small groups and in casual settings -- a talent he can put to good use in one-on-one campaigning and could help him develop more fans.
Pawlenty has impressed insiders with his early political organization, but now has to prove he can raise big money nationally and keep it flowing, experts said.
There may also be time for Pawlenty, who still has a fresh-faced glow in national politics, to become known to the general public.
While Pawlenty has done fine in the second tier of candidates newer to the national stage, he has yet to score big on any 2012 polls. That's also not unusual.
Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 2008 contenders, were also in the single digits in polls at this point in 2006, while former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was a virtual unknown.
Job back home
Unlike Pawlenty, none of those potential presidential aspirants now runs a state.
Pawlenty's day job as Red governor in a Blue state gives him opportunity to shine or falter.
When he released his proposed budget this month, nearly one-third of his deficit fix came from an extension of federal spending originally in the 2009 stimulus bill. Democrats locally and nationally pounced on the man who has traveled the country blasting the stimulus package. Pawlenty retorted that the funds weren't really stimulus, just Minnesota's due.
The governor has also gotten guff for his heavy national travel schedule, with Democrats saying he should be home more, working on the intense legislative session.
Pawlenty shrugs off the concern, saying his governing hasn't suffered because of his trips. This month, he vetoed a bill and issued another veto threat from Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, Pawlenty continues his out-of-state travels. Over the weekend, he spoke to Republicans in Missouri and Nevada. Next month, he'll visit Texas, D.C. and New Hampshire. In April, he heads to Iowa, Washington state and will speak at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Louisiana.
To hear him tell it, all the plans, all that travel and all those speeches have nothing to do with the presidential bid politics watchers expect.
"Tomorrow," he said on a radio show recently, "will take care of itself."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164