Pawlenty enjoys prominence among nation's Republicans

WASHINGTON -- There is a buzz. Sen. Norm Coleman said there is admiration on Capitol Hill for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and he's quick to heap further praise on his fellow Republican back home. "Tim Pawlenty is my choice for vice president," C...

WASHINGTON -- There is a buzz.

Sen. Norm Coleman said there is admiration on Capitol Hill for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and he's quick to heap further praise on his fellow Republican back home.

"Tim Pawlenty is my choice for vice president," Coleman declared this week while sitting with a cup of tea in his Washington office.

Minnesota's Republican governor has demonstrated political talents that would be an asset to the GOP's national ticket in 2008, Coleman said.

That sentiment certainly isn't new. For several years, Pawlenty has been considered a potential candidate for higher office. Observers cite his blend of youthful charisma, conservative credentials and electoral success in a political battleground state.


For his part, Pawlenty repeatedly has rejected rumors he's gunning for higher office and said he plans to serve out his four-year term.

Still, more theories about Pawlenty's political future developed after his 2006 re-election victory in a tough year for Republicans.

And the flames of political speculation were fanned again when Pawlenty announced he would help lead Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential exploratory committee.

Pawlenty describes McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, as an inspiring leader who can bridge vast partisanship in Washington. McCain has returned praise.

"Tim is a good friend and a great leader," McCain said in announcing Pawlenty's spot on his committee, adding that the governor "has moved Minnesota forward and has done so with character and integrity."

They've appeared together several times in the past year. McCain was in Minnesota to campaign for Pawlenty and the governor was invited on a McCain-led tour to Iraq.

Pawlenty is popular among Republicans across the country because he has "implemented a reform agenda" in Minnesota, can win tough elections and is an articulate spokesman for conservative principles, said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the McCain exploratory committee based near Washington.

Brian Sullivan is a Republican National Committee member who ran against Pawlenty in the 2002 gubernatorial primary. Sullivan, who like Pawlenty was in Washington for a recent meeting about the party's 2008 national convention in St. Paul, said the governor has addressed party activists but still lacks visibility.


"The feedback is always very positive about his presence and the message that he's delivering, but from a 2008 perspective the focus is on the candidates who are running for president," Sullivan said.

Still, he added that Pawlenty "is viewed as a prime vice presidential candidate by a number of folks."

But speculation about Pawlenty's future on the national political scene doesn't reach all corners of Capitol Hill.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, one of Minnesota's three Republican House members, said any talk in Washington of Pawlenty as a potential vice presidential pickhasn't registered on his radar.

"Frankly, I've never heard about it out here," Kline said in a recent interview.

Kline said he doesn't know whether Pawlenty's name has surfaced in discussions among those close to potential presidential hopefuls, but he added, "He's a fine individual, and I think he's a good governor."

Pawlenty allies said his work for McCain shouldn't be viewed as positioning himself for higher office.

"I'll leave this to the pundits, but I think he's made it pretty clear that he's doing this because he believes in Sen. McCain," said Michael Krueger, Pawlenty's gubernatorial campaign manager.


In his lead role with McCain's committee, Pawlenty will provide strategic advice and reach out to GOP faithful who will determine the party's 2008 presidential candidate, Krueger said.

That could eventually include appearances outside Minnesota. But Pawlenty's work for McCain won't interfere with his duties as governor, his spokesman, Brian McClung, said.

"The governor's focus and first priority is the work of the people of Minnesota," McClung said. "There's no trade-offs here."

Democrats aren't so sure.

State DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez said Pawlenty is behaving like someone with national ambitions.

"I'm a little concerned that his first loyalty is not necessarily going to be to the people of Minnesota," Melendez said.

Pawlenty has gained national attention in other ways. He governs in an ethanol-rich state at a time when renewable energy initiatives are gaining traction across the country, and he has led a coalition of governors from ethanol-producing states.

Later this year he will take over as chairman of the National Governors Association. He already leads a governors' committee on education reform.


Minnesotans may not be bothered by Pawlenty's growing national presence as long as it doesn't appear he's ignoring his home state, Craig Grau said.

"If he's going around the country and giving speeches for McCain and things like that ... I think that's when people might get more concerned about it," said Grau, a retired University of Minnesota Duluth political science professor.

As he works on McCain's exploratory committee, Pawlenty could cross paths with one of his own former political opponents: Tim Penny.

A former Democratic congressman from southern Minnesota and Independence Party candidate for governor in 2002, Penny has said he wants to help McCain in key states such as Iowa.

Penny said Pawlenty's work for McCain could elevate his position.

"It's not as if [his name] is on everybody's tongue," Penny said. "This certainly helps."

Coleman, too, has been considered a potential candidate for higher office, though he says he plans to seek re-election to a second Senate term in 2008.

The senator admitted his own re-election chances could be boosted if a local Republican like Pawlenty were featured during the party's 2008 convention in St. Paul.


Pawlenty has spoken at least twice in the past year to the Republican National Committee. He makes occasional appearances on conservative radio and cable TV talk shows.

"It's further confirmation that people around the country recognize Tim Pawlenty as a strong leader, and people from all walks of the Republican spectrum want him as part of their team," Minnesota GOP Chairman Ron Carey said.

Pawlenty's desire to work with McCain does stem from his admiration for the senator, Sullivan said.

"At the same time," Sullivan continued, "he's an astute-enough guy that he understands getting on board with somebody early is better than getting on board late."

Scott Wente reports for Forum Communications Co., owner of the Duluth News Tribune.

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