Gov. Tim Pawlenty returned as the vice presidential flavor of the week on Wednesday, as national pundits worked themselves into a frenzy over whether Minnesota's governor will be John McCain's running mate.

The speculation was fueled by what may have been a purposeful slip of the lip by McCain at a closed-door meeting on Tuesday, when he reportedly told a small group of supporters that they "are really going to like" Pawlenty, consistently one of the most oft-named GOP vice presidential prospects.

Earlier in the day, Pawlenty had traveled to McCain headquarters in Arlington, Va., for a private tête-a-tête with McCain folks.

Pawlenty, who previously has gone out of his way to tamp down expectations, on Tuesday pointedly dodged the veep question.

"I've stopped engaging in all this vice-presidential discussion," he told Fox News on Tuesday, in an interview from Arlington. "It's interesting, I'm sure, for people to speculate about, but I've stopped engaging in it."

On Wednesday, Pawlenty popped over to Michigan to speak to Republicans at a well-known audition spot: the Lincoln Day dinner.

Bill Nowling, spokesman for the Michigan GOP, said Wednesday that Republicans were elated to have nabbed Pawlenty just as he's cresting the height of speculation.

"He's on everybody's short list for VP and we've got him," Nowling said. "Obviously, he's going to be a big draw tonight."

Back to Minnesota today

Pawlenty returns to his home turf this afternoon, and Minnesotans will get a chance to hear from him during his Friday morning talk show on WCCO-AM, when he will be joined by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is himself a possible Democratic VP contender. But don't expect to call in with your own VP question. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, says that such overtly political questions are screened out.

Pawlenty is not the only prospect getting good buzz, but he appears to be on an increasingly short list of those still in active contention.

McCain was to have met Wednesday with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose meteoric rise in politics had put him on McCain's radar. Like Pawlenty, Jindal is young, telegenic, enthusiastic and considered a fresh thinker, but at 36 is considered green by some. Shortly before his scheduled meeting, he appeared to take himself out of contention, abruptly announcing that "I will not be the vice presidential nominee."

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whom McCain beat out for the GOP endorsement, has mended fences with his onetime rival and last week topped the list for the chattering classes. But he has said publicly and privately that he does not expect to be McCain's running mate.

While Washington sizzled with veep speculation, Romney was noticed by his absence. He is in Ontario, vacationing with his family.

Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who has evolved into a weighty Washington operative and lobbyist, said Wednesday that rumors are rampant but facts scarce.

"Everybody's talking, but nobody knows," he said. Weber, who backed Romney over McCain, said Romney told him privately last week that he does not expect to be named.

Rumors are ... rumors

That still doesn't exactly clear the field for Pawlenty. But the confluence of events this week has sent Pawlenty's stock soaring among veepologists, with everyone from the New York Times to the Phoenix Business Journal weighing in.

National political analyst Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, said that as frenzied as the rumors are, they remain little more than that. McCain is famously close-mouthed about such things and has been careful so far not to shine his light too brightly on any one prospect.

Confronted directly by a New York Times reporter on Wednesday, who asked point-blank whether Pawlenty topped the list, McCain ducked, saying, "We can't mention any names."

When pressed, he called Pawlenty "a great, fine person," but then threw in a little gratuitous praise for Jindal, citing the two as the leading edge of "the next generation of leadership."

Staff writer Bob von Sternberg contributed to this report.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288