WASHINGTON -- Call him the stealth candidate. Even as Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty polled a lowly 3 percent among New Hampshire Republicans, a Washington Post headline this week dubbed him "a contender to reshape [the] GOP's 2012 image."
Largely unknown in the early primary state, Pawlenty still packed a room with curious journalists this week at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, two blocks from the White House he's eying for 2012. The New Hampshire poll, released Wednesday, is only the latest indicator of Pawlenty's weakness as a potential GOP nominee. But there are more subtle indicators that suggest the governor may be in an uncommonly strong position to be just the kind of candidate the GOP may want: a relatively mild-mannered Midwesterner who won't bring controversy or baggage of his own when he shifts the focus on President Obama.
In a strong position or not, Pawlenty says he's not worried. "A, I haven't made a decision whether I'm even going to run or not, and B, I continue to have not much name ID or awareness in some of these other states," he told reporters on Wednesday in St. Paul.
Pawlenty strategists and outside observers say he has plenty of time to stir the public, which has not connected with him nearly as much as with the journalists and party insiders who are looking for the GOP's next leader.
"It's obviously premature to speculate about who may or may not run in 2012, let alone run polls asking voters who they'll support," said Alex Conant, spokesman for Freedom First PAC, Pawlenty's national political organization.
Still, if Pawlenty's presidential aspirations do take off -- still very much on open question -- some analysts suspect that one of his assets could be his lack of pizazz.
"Essentially, Pawlenty becomes the non-rock star running against the rock star," said Hamline University political scientist David Schultz.
"There's always a sense of contrast," said former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber, a close Pawlenty adviser. "Whoever the Republicans put up will have to contrast somehow with Obama."
Weber, a national GOP strategist with ties to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other GOP contenders, says current poll numbers merely put Pawlenty in a category of candidates who aren't well-known now. He believes that will change after the spotlight moves on from this year's mid-term elections.
"A lot of people are looking at the Republican field, saying somebody that's not well-known now is going to emerge," Weber said. "Tim Pawlenty looks about as attractive as any of the new faces coming up."
If Republicans pursue a strategy of making 2012 a referendum on Obama's legacy in the White House, some believe a blandly generic Republican could fit the bill better than better-known but controversial contenders like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
Playing it safe
Pawlenty, presenting himself as a fresh face on the national scene, could be the "safe" candidate, unburdened by nation al controversy or a long list of enemies. "He's not a blank slate, but they haven't been taking shots at him at a high level yet," said American Enterprise Institute scholar Karlyn Bowman.
The danger, however, is that Pawlenty's image as a mainstream conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan could make him the wrong man at the wrong time, with the Republican Party bubbling with Tea Party ferment.
"He's not one of them, and I don't think there's any way he can make himself into that," Schultz said.
Pawlenty has embraced the energy of the Tea Party movement, calling it "healthy" in his meeting with national reporters Monday. He also promised "a new day, a new era" in the GOP, with a crop of national candidates who don't fit its "country club" image.
For now, though, Pawlenty remains in the shadows of the party's more battle-tested warriors. In this week's Public Policy Polling survey of Republican support in New Hampshire (where Pawlenty has visited twice in recent months), Romney leads with 31 percent. Gingrich was at 14 percent, Ron Paul 13 percent, Mike Huckabee 12 percent and Palin 9 percent. Only Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, at 1 percent, trailed Pawlenty.
The numbers, much like those in other states, have changed little since last fall, when Pawlenty formed his PAC and started crisscrossing the nation to introduce himself and raise money for fellow Republicans.
For all his outsider status, Pawlenty's most gratifying moments to date have been among inside-the-Beltway pundits and operatives. "Politicos in Washington are always looking for the next hot candidate, and they take Pawlenty seriously," Bowman said.
Looking back at the history of governors-cum-presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, it comes as no surprise. "A lot of people emerge from nowhere," Bowman said.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.