WASHINGTON - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty preempted his own long-expected presidential announcement Tuesday, telling CNN interviewer Piers Morgan: "I'm running for president."

Pawlenty's remark, his first direct acknowledgment that he will run, came in response to a question about whether he would agree to become a candidate for vice president on a ticket led by someone like Donald Trump.

"I'm running for president," Pawlenty said, "I'm not putting my hat in the ring rhetorically or ultimately for vice president. So I'm focused on running for president."

Aides made it clear that Pawlenty's remark to the British journalist during the taping of a show that aired Tuesday night was not intended to be his official announcement and even Pawlenty said Morgan and others should stay tuned for the real thing.

"We'll have a final or full announcement on that in the coming weeks here," Pawlenty said. "It won't be long too much longer, but everything is headed in that direction."

Pawlenty has been taking deliberate steps to run for president for more than a year, first forming a political action committee, Freedom First PAC, penning a campaign autobiography, "Courage to Stand," and then last month forming an exploratory committee, which allows him to raise money as a potential candidate.

But throughout the long rollout, Pawlenty has studiously avoided referring to himself as a candidate for the presidency, preferring instead to cast himself as someone exploring his options and considering a run.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Pawlenty would no longer be considered to be "testing the waters" after he makes or authorizes statements referring to himself as a candidate.

But on Tuesday, Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant immediately downplayed the import of the televised remark. In a text message, Conant told the Star Tribune: "He did not make news. He said he's not running for VP. Said that lots of times."

In the context of the full interview, Conant said, it is clear that all Pawlenty intended to convey to Morgan and CNN viewers is that he is not interested in being vice president.

Struggling to raise profile

After CNN started promoting Pawlenty's comment, Pawlenty's exploratory committee released a statement saying "he will have a formal announcement about running for president later this spring."

Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are the only two GOP hopefuls who have announced exploratory committees.

Morgan's question about Trump came in the context of a national CNN poll released Tuesday that had the real estate mogul tied for first place with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among those considered as possible contenders for the GOP nomination. Trump and Huckabee polled at 19 percent each. Pawlenty came in ninth, at 2 percent, behind fellow Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, who came in seventh at 5 percent.

Struggling to raise his national profile and break out of the single digits in the polls, Pawlenty has been traveling extensively in the early primary and caucus states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is headed this weekend.

The CNN comment came a day after hiring GOP campaign strategist Nick Ayers to lead his exploratory committee.

Kevin Diaz and Jeremy Herb are correspondents in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.