David Gregory rarely makes house calls. As host of "Meet the Press," TV's longest-running program and the top-rated Sun-day-morning chatfest, the world's top newsmakers come to him, betting that their policies and public image can stand up to one of journalism's smoothest and savviest interrogators.

But on Thursday, Gregory and the show's longtime executive producer, Betsy Fischer, took a field trip to the Twin Cities to host a public forum with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a clear signal that the East Coast media already consider him a presidential candidate.

"He's on our radar," said Gregory a few hours before the interview, excerpts of which will air on Sunday morning's show. "This is the most fun part of the political process, because it's far enough away from the election that you can really explore what a person thinks. Their thoughts are less formed."

"And they don't have 20 advisers tapping them on the shoulders," Fischer added.

Gregory knows what it's like to be scrutinized.

The former White House correspondent, referred to as "Stretch" by President George W. Bush, took over hosting duties in December 2008, shortly after Tim Russert's unexpected death. Gregory admits that the first few months were challenging, but a few breakout hours, including a tribute to the late Ted Kennedy and an in-depth interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have helped him come into his own.

"It was a gradual process," said Fischer, who also worked with Russert. "David's strengths are his versatility and his conversational style, which helps draw people out."

That description may surprise people who still think of Gregory as the most persistent and pesky of the White House press corps, but he says he's adapted his approach to match the gravitas of an institution that dates back to 1947.

"This is a place for more constructive dialogue instead of polarizing conversation," Gregory said. "That's the strength of the program. We still want it to be the place for thoughtful discussion."

That doesn't mean Gregory is always gracious. Earlier this month, he kept after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who evaded numerous questions. On "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" recently, he topped fellow guest Russell Brand by telling him to pipe down because "the adults are talking." Rand Paul, a Tea Party candidate in the Kentucky race for U.S. Senate, canceled a "Meet the Press" appearance last week, clearly concerned that Gregory might dunk him into even hotter water.

Despite the potential for embarrassment, newsmakers continue to treat "Press" as a necessary pit stop during any political or policy campaign.

"This is the standard," Gregory said. "This show comes with more accountability and a tradition of being more in-depth."

Despite the heavy responsibility, Gregory still finds time to enjoy baseball and had contemplated sticking around after his Pawlenty interview to attend a Twins game. Instead, he opted to catch an early evening flight back home to D.C. to spend more time with his wife and kids, a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old twins.

Gregory said the oldest child hasn't expressed any interest in watching Dad's show -- unless it features a sports star.

"I got Joe Torre to come on recently and after that, my son begged me to invite the Washington Senators," Gregory said. "I'm not sure they'd be too interested."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431