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DES MOINES - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood in front of 200 supporters on a rooftop terrace on Monday, with the sun-splashed golden dome of Iowa's statehouse as the backdrop, and spoke the words he's waited so long to say:
"I'm Tim Pawlenty, and I'm running for President of the United States."
In the formal launch of his long-planned quest, Pawlenty told the crowd he would not be offering easy answers.
"It's time for America's president -- and anyone who wants to be president -- to look you in the eye and tell you the truth," he said. "So here it is." He would, he said, go to New York this week and tell Wall Street "that if I'm elected, the era of bailouts, handouts and carve-outs will be over ... No more 'too big to fail.'" In Florida on Wednesday, he said, he would "tell the truth to wealthy seniors, that we will means test Social Security's annual cost-of-living adjustment."
"The changes history is calling on America to make today," he said, "cannot be shouldered only by people richer than us or poorer than us -- but by us, too."
Digging deep into his blue-collar upbringing in South St. Paul, Pawlenty laid out a platform built on the anti-tax principles of less government and traditional values refined over a 22-year political career that started age 28, on the Eagan City Council.
He counted cutting taxes and spending, instituting health care choice and performance pay for teachers, reformed union benefits and the appointment of constitutional conservatives to the state Supreme Court among his achievements. "If we could move Minnesota in a common sense, conservative direction, we can do it anywhere," he said.
"Even in Washington D.C."
Setting a course for the White House, Pawlenty, 50, could provide the Republican counterpoint to an older generation of Minnesota native sons who sought the presidency as Democrats. Former Vice Presidents Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale both lost, Mondale in a landslide to Pawlenty's ideological mentor, Ronald Reagan.
Minnesota and Iowa Democrats gathered in Des Moines immediately after the announcement to assail Pawlenty's fiscal record in Minnesota. DFL Party Chair Ken Martin noted that while Mondale announced his 1980 bid in his North Oaks hometown, Pawlenty skipped his in favor of the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa.
Actually, the first official word of his candidacy came in a YouTube video posted Sunday night, a nod to the importance of the Internet in modern politics.
In both real time and cyberspace, the legacy of Minnesota liberalism has become a reliable staple of Pawlenty's stump speech. "I know what it takes to defeat the liberal establishment," Pawlenty wrote to supporters in a recent fundraising pitch, "because I've done it."
Pawlenty's case for the presidency will rest in part on his Norman Rockwell life story and record as governor from 2002 to 2010 -- a turbulent period in which he fought with public employee unions and tangled with DFL legislative leaders over taxes and spending.
Standing up to public unions, cutting spending and rejecting tax increases wasn't easy, he said when he launched an exploratory committee in March.
"But these fiscally responsible policies helped my state be a leader in economic growth and job creation."
DFL critics point to higher property taxes, skyrocketing college tuition, persistent deficits and deep job losses during the his watch, topped by the $6 billion projected deficit he left behind in 2010. His announcement came on the last day of a legislative session where lawmakers remain stalemated over how to resolve a projected budget gap that still stands at $5 billion.
Despite broadsides from the left, Pawlenty knows his more immediate challenge could come from the right. In seeking the GOP nomination in Tampa next summer, Pawlenty will surely face better-known rivals such as 2008 presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan who has dogged him at every turn, is expected to seek the nomination as well.
'I lived it'
In a national campaign where personal narrative counts, Paw-lenty is relying heavily on his.
It begins amid the long-vanished stockyards of South St. Paul, where Pawlenty lost his mother at age 16, and where his father, a truck driver, lost his job.
"I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship and the face of job loss," Pawlenty says in his exploratory committee video. "I lived it."
Even as he criticizes public employee unions, Pawlenty plays up his own union past as a part-time produce worker at the local Applebaum's grocery store. It is a claim that rubs raw the local labor leaders who have felt the sting of his anti-union rhetoric.
"He probably would not have been a member if we were a 'right-to-work,' state," said Don Seaquist, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 in South St. Paul.
The youngest of five, Pawlenty grew up in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. He got to college -- the first in his family to do so -- on scholarships, government financial aid and a part-time job. Pawlenty soon abandoned a dream of a dentistry career after joining the college Republicans at the University of Minnesota in 1979 and helping with the Reagan campaign.
By 1982, he had joined the re-election campaign of then-U.S. Sen. David Durenberger.
While at the U of M's law school, Pawlenty met Mary Anderson. The "red-hot smokin' wife" of his stump speeches, she led him to leave the Catholic Church of his youth and adopt the evangelical Christianity he professes today.
As a young, married lawyer, Pawlenty was drawn to the development battles of rapidly growing Eagan. After gaining a City Council seat in 1989, he tried for a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1992. By 1999, he had risen to House Majority Leader, and was going toe-to-toe with Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Thoughts of a U.S. Senate run in in 2002 vanished after Pawlenty got a call from Vice President Dick Cheney, suggesting that he step aside for a better-known prospect, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
The moment proved a turning point for Pawlenty. Considering an end to his political career, he says he was fortified by his wife, who implored him to jump into the governor's race.
He eked out a plurality of the vote against longtime Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny in a three-way election. His re-election in 2006 proved even more difficult. Pawlenty emerged the victor in another three-way race by less than 1 percentage point.
'No name recognition'
Heading into 2012, Pawlenty still finds himself a little-known figure struggling for traction against bigger names.
His closest brush with national fame was as the runner-up to Sarah Palin, who became U.S. Sen. John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race.
Whatever Pawlenty's disadvantages, he starts out with relatively little baggage in presidential politics, a carefully cultivated image as a conservative from a "sea of liberals" and his solid, if unexciting, presence in a fractured GOP field.
He is determined to turn that last into a plus. Minnesotans, he notes in his book "Courage to Stand," "don't feel the need to attract attention ... they just get it done."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.