ROCHESTER -- In a speech early this morning, Gov. Tim Pawlenty told Republicans they need to dial the clock back nearly 30 years and return to the sunny optimism of former President Ronald Reagan.

People, he told attendees at the state party convention, "deserve leaders who are hopeful, optimistic, decent," who can carry a positive Republican message that excites and energizes voters.

"People want to be part of something exciting, positive, meaningful." But even more importantly, he said, Republicans must find a way to connect with the vast middle of Americans. "We have not done as good a job translating our ideas into meaningful connections" to working-class families, he said, "but we can do it ... because ideas and values matter."

Unless Republicans want just to debate ideas instead of winning elections, he said, the party will have to reach out to "center-right Democrats and independents."

Pawlenty's presence at the convention was brief, lasting less than an hour total. On Friday, during the convention's main business, Pawlenty was in North Carolina campaigning for a congressional candidate. By mid-morning today, he was due back in the Twin Cities to offer godspeed to a National Guard troop deployment.

Moments before he stepped onstage, Pawlenty was peppered with questions from reporters about his vice presidential prospects. As always, he demurred, saying his focus was on being governor. He has become a frequent surrogate for presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain and is among the top prospects to be McCain's running mate.

This morning, he was decidedly coy about his chances, saying he hadn't talked to McCain for a month and professed not to know whether he is the subject of background checks or is even under serious consideration. That moved one reporter to ask if the press corps was crazy to continue querying him about his chances. "It would be disrespectful for me to call you crazy," he said with a smile.

Pawlenty also talked about his record as governor, saying he was "proud to be the record-holder for the most vetoes issued in any year in Minnesota history." Whipping out a red pen, Pawlenty said that he had brought "his friend" along to the convention and that he would not hesitate to use it "now and down the road."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288