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Clearing the way for what could be an attempt at higher office, Gov. Tim Pawlenty abruptly announced Tuesday that he would not seek a third term -- a move widely seen in political circles as the first step in a possible presidential run.
Pawlenty, who has 19 months left in his term, denied that he had any national aspirations or, in fact, any plans at all.
"I don't know what the future holds for me," he said with a smile and a shrug to a packed reception room of reporters and supporters at the State Capitol. "I'm not ruling anything in or out."
Later he acknowledged plans to travel to Washington, D.C., on Friday to address a gathering of College Republicans and has been in contact with national Republicans "a lot."
Pawlenty has been similarly coy in the past about his future. Last summer he declined to talk about possible designs on a running mate spot even as he was undergoing a final vetting by Republican presidential candidate John McCain's team. Pawlenty came within a breath of being selected, only to be passed over at the last minute for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Since then, Pawlenty has remained in high demand on the national circuit and is a frequent guest on news shows, with an even brighter spotlight cast on him courtesy of Minnesota's long-running Senate race.
While Pawlenty demurred on his future as an officeholder, he did say he wants to become a force in reshaping and rebranding a national GOP left in disarray after a crushing defeat at the polls.
"My party needs new ideas, new policies, and I think I can contribute to that," said Pawlenty, who first gained national attention several years ago when he began articulating a vision of Republicans as the party of "Sam's Club," rather than the country club.
Pawlenty has been a dominant force in Minnesota Republican politics since his days as the House majority leader when he went toe-to-toe with Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura. The imminent departure creates an open field for the 2010 gubernatorial race and set off a free-for-all Tuesday as Republicans lined up to stake a potential claim.
Pawlenty said he announced his decision early in part to give his party time to find a viable successor.
"I still have a lot of ideas and energy left," he said, "but being governor should not be a permanent position for anyone .... It's time to give someone else a chance."
'You finish strong'
Pawlenty said his decision was not driven by fear that he might have been thumped at the polls had he run for re-election. "I absolutely could have won -- would have won -- a third term," he said, ticking off recent polls from Rasmussen and SurveyUSA that showed him leading all DFL challengers.
Critics say Pawlenty has been "disengaged" and fixated more on his national ambitions than his current job. Pawlenty said he's not only engaged, but in the coming months will lay out a vision for the state "not just for the next 19 months, but the next 19 years." Pawlenty compared his efforts to the marathons he regularly runs. "You don't run 15 miles and stop for a doughnut and Kool-Aid," he said. "You finish strong ... Minnesota will get my very best until the very end."
Pawlenty said he also intends to "work hard to get a Republican governor elected." That may serve to address a central criticism some national pundits made of Pawlenty last time -- that he had done little party-building during his time in leadership and lacked the requisite chits and viable political organization that make for strong national candidates.
The time Pawlenty spent criss-crossing the nation last year as one of McCain's top surrogates may serve him well as he seeks to become a stronger voice in the Republican Party. Saul Anuzis, who recently stepped down as the Michigan Republican Party chairman, said Pawlenty left "very favorable impressions" in his wake."
"He's young, dynamic, accessible, conversational and he's got real experiences to share," said Anuzis, who recently introduced Pawlenty when the governor addressed a top gathering of national conservatives. Anuzis said he would welcome a Pawlenty candidacy. "He has emerged and developed as a leader of the party and somebody everybody will look at seriously as a potential candidate," Anuzis said.
Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report in Washington, said that in the showdown over whether the Republican Party should hew toward purists or "big tent" types, Pawlenty could fill the void as a voice for a more open party.
Pawlenty affirmed that on Tuesday, saying the party needed to be able to embrace both moderate retired Gen. Colin Powell and far right radio host Rush Limbaugh.
"There is a field forming," Duffy said of the 2012 presidential race. "I think he'll be a member of that field."
Work ahead in Minnesota
Duffy said Pawlenty will have to negotiate a couple of potential minefields carefully: Minnesota's endless U.S. Senate race and the $1 billion in "unallotments" that Pawlenty has committed to cutting from Minnesota's budget on his own authority after failing to reach agreement with the Legislature over how to balance the budget.
"He could make his mark as a fiscal conservative who's willing to do what it takes," she said, "but he also runs the risk of cutting so close to the bone that there's a backlash."
Similarly, if he were to help national Republicans stall DFLer Al Franken's entry to the Senate by withholding an election certificate, Duffy said, "that would earn him big points with Republicans and could be valuable fundraising tool, but he could also become a piñata for Democrats who already see him as a threat."
Pawlenty dismissed questions Tuesday about whether he would sign a certificate, saying that "I'm not going to hold it up or delay it."
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and lobbyist who went on to become a force in Republican politics, said that Pawlenty does not need to make any decision yet about presidential politics.
"He knows he can be involved at the national level any time he wants to," Weber said. "He really sees himself playing a role in rebuilding the party from the ground up," Weber said. "If that comes together, he may well be a candidate for president." That could happen in 2012 or even 2016, he said.
Pawlenty predicted that there would soon be widespread disenchantment with a Democratic approach that has exponentially expanded the federal government's role through massive bailouts and industry takeovers. "Reality will come crashing in," Pawlenty predicted.
Unshackled from local political considerations, Pawlenty said he would enter the next legislative session not as a lame duck, but as someone who "can be more aggressive without having to worry about the consequences."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288