(With Jim Spencer)

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is taking himself out of contention for any upcoming statewide political races as well as a possible presidential cabinet post as he steps into a high-paying job leading the Financial Services Roundtable, one of the nation's top financial lobbying groups. Pawlenty, a former presidential candidate and vice presidential finalist, also announced Thursday that he is quitting his position as national co-chair for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, where he has been a high-profile surrogate. As he exits the national stage, Pawlenty becomes president and chief executive officer of a high-powered private-sector organization that paid his predecessor $1.8 million a year. "We sought him out," said Scott Talbott, the Roundtable s senior vice president for public policy. The position will make Pawlenty one of the top voices of the financial services industry in Washington at a time when Republicans are seeking to reverse many Wall Street restrictions passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Pawlenty, however, agreed to leave parstian politics behind for at least two years, and possibly more."He is committed to work for the Roundtable for the foreseeable future," Talbot said. That commitment takes Pawlenty out of contention for widely speculated runs against either Gov. Mark Dayton or U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who are both up for reelection in 2014. It also rules out a cabinet post that some of his closest associates thought possible if Romney were to defeat President Barrack Obama. Pawlenty's decision to leave the Romney campaign in the critical home stretch of a race with the GOP candidate slipping in the polls raised further douts about the prospects for Romney's campaign, which has come under criticism from some Republican strategists. "In some ways it is surprising that he didn't wait until after the election," said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson. "He could have waited to see if Romney won and he got a cabinet post." Pawlenty, a former two-term governor, served as one of Romney's top advisors, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and often appeared on television and at campaign events on Romney's behalf. Several Minnesota Republicans who have worked with Pawlenty or know him well say the move into the private sector is a logical step for him financially as well as politically. "It certainly doesn't close any doors for elective office," said Minnesota Business Partnership leader Charlie Weaver, Pawlenty's former chief of staff. "He can still scratch that itch, but at the same time be in the private sector and pay for his kids' college." Pawlenty's job at The Financial Services Roundtable will pay a lot more than any political office or appointment. While the lobbying group would not release Pawlenty's annual salary, filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that the Roundtable paid Pawlenty's predecessor, Steve Bartlett, $1.8 million in 2010. Weaver said Pawlenty has conferred with former GOP administration officials like ex-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and concluded that a possible cabinet position is "not that enticing" for a former governor. Weaver also pushed back against a chorus of Washington pundits who speculated that Pawlenty's move reflected a lack of faith in Romney's chances against Obama, who has opened leads in almost all national and swing state polls. "For those who say this is somehow the rats leaving the ship, that's not what's going on here at all," Weaver said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. These things don't come along very often." Former Pawlenty aide Brian McClung said that as the former governor embarks on a career in the private sector, he is "taking off the table running for U.S. Senate or governor in 2014." Pawlenty's exit from the public stage should be applauded. "It's what the founders had in mind when our system was created," he said. "Pundits and the chattering class often seem confounded when someone chooses to do what Gov. Pawlenty is doing, but it's a good and healthy thing." Other GOP strategists noted that with Congress adjourning until the November elections, there are others who can step in as a Romney surrogate, a position Pawlenty agreed to give up to take his new job representing the banking and insurance industries, both major players in Washington. "I know for a fact that Tim Pawlenty is as passionate about the GOP ticket as anybody in our party, but being a national campaign co-chair is a full time job without a paycheck, and, like the rest of us, he needs to make a living," said Minneapolis attorney Andy Brehm, who was a staffer for former Sen. Norm Coleman. The Romney campaign issued a statement calling Pawlenty a "dear friend," and wishing him success in his new position. "Mitt Romney is a truly good man and great leader," Pawlenty said in a statement. "As the campaign moves into the home stretch, he has my full support and continued faith in his vision and his policies."