WASHINGTON - He's just a few years out of college, but he's already been dubbed one of the top political "free agents" in Washington. One of his teachers calls him a "natural."

Now Nick Ayers, 28, is taking charge as campaign manager for Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential exploratory committee, which is expected to morph into a full-blown campaign in the next month.

"He is without question one of the best political talents in America," Pawlenty said Monday. "His leadership and record of winning tough races in every part of our country will provide even more momentum to our campaign to get America back on track."

Ayers, with the easy Southern drawl of his native Georgia, worked with Pawlenty as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, an organization that helped raise the Minnesota Republican's national profile.

Now, as the manager of Pawlenty's officially undeclared campaign, Ayers is expected to provide a jolt of national fundraising acumen, contacts and insider credibility.

Mindful of Pawlenty's single-digit showings in national polls, Ayers said: "It's like any startup. The time to invest isn't when you have your IPO and it's worth $300 a share. The time to invest is when it's a penny stock. I think Pawlenty is the best investment in politics right now. So my theory was to buy low and win high."

Since 2007, Ayers is widely credited for his role in turning the Republican Governors Association into a no-nonsense fundraising powerhouse that helped the GOP surge from 22 to 29 governorships around the nation. Last year, the association shattered all previous fundraising records, with Ayers deploying $102 million directly into independent expenditures and campaigns around the nation.

Coveted pick

Ayers was named a top "free agent" for the 2012 race by Politico and the Washington Post. A Post columnist said in February that he was, "without question, the most coveted staffer still not signed to a campaign yet."

He even has friends among Democrats. Nathan Daschle, who was Ayers' counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association for four years, said that the two went after one another aggressively in the political arena but became friends outside it.

"I can't help it. I like the guy," Daschle said. "I still wanted to absolutely destroy him last year, but I really did like him."

Phil Musser, a senior adviser to Pawlenty for the past two years, said Ayers has "long been our top choice for this job."

Ayers said he's eyed Pawlenty as well. "I watched from afar and always admired him as a forward-leaning, young, articulate, dynamic governor," Ayers said.

Growing up outside Atlanta, Ayers started politics in the come-from-behind 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Sonny Perdue, who knocked off an incumbent Democrat governor. Ayers was 19.

"When we won, I had the option of basically being the senior adviser to a governor or a freshman in college," Ayers said. "I chose the gubernatorial post."

Studying nights and weekends, he worked on his college diploma over the next seven years. But his real political education came on the ground, in the world of Georgia and national politics.

Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta who taught Ayers, said Ayers seemed "older than his years."

"My nickname for him is 'The Natural,'" Swint said. "He is someone who, from a very young age, displayed enormous instinct and talent and just made a real name for himself."

Working in the governors association, where Pawlenty was rising to vice chairman, Ayers visited the Minnesota governor in 2007 to promote a four-year political plan to turn the group into a political juggernaut. Eventually, the governors' group would come to overshadow the troubled Republican National Committee under embattled leader Michael Steele.

Over a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bacon and coffee, Ayers and Pawlenty discussed wives, dogs and sports. Ayers said he left feeling that Pawlenty was "the total package" as a conservative leader. Pawlenty never won a majority vote in his two terms and, at times, some questioned the depth of his conservatism, but Ayers called Pawlenty a "staunch conservative who had the courage to put his record in front of the voters in a tough state, and in a tough year, and was reelected."

In both an interview and a note to friends and supporters Monday, Ayers was careful not to dismiss other GOP hopefuls, some of whom, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, he knows well from his days at the governors association.

His decision to join Team Pawlenty, he said, "is not a slight to any other candidate or potential candidate in the race."

But now that he's moving to Minneapolis to work with Pawlenty, Ayers clearly has thrown in his lot with a middle-of-the-pack GOP candidate who has his work cut out for him in a wide-open race.

Asked whether he thinks he can raise the $25 million some experts say it will take to get through the primary campaign season, Ayers said he would not talk goals or strategy.

"What I believe," he said, "is we will have the resources necessary to compete and win."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.