- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mitt Romney, take note.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is burnishing his standing among Republican primary voters who overwhelmingly oppose President Obama’s health care overhaul, while taking an indirect swipe at the former Massachusetts governor and likely rival. The law is likely to be a central theme in the 2012 presidential race.

Mr. Pawlenty, who is not seeking a third term in the governor’s office, hasn’t announced if he will enter the GOP presidential primaries and caucuses. But on Tuesday he ordered state agencies to decline “discretionary” involvement with the federal law “unless otherwise required by law or approved by the governor’s office.” He said his office will determine whether federal funding would support state initiatives or create “new encroachments by the federal government.”

Fast-forward to Iowa next year, when Mr. Pawlenty may be seeking the White House. He will be able to tell the conservative activists about his executive order that sought to limit the reach of Mr. Obama’s signature achievement. And he’ll be able to attack Mr. Romney, a potential rival, in the same breath.

Mr. Romney, too, opposed the federal health care overhaul. But should Mr. Romney make a second run for the White House, his GOP opponents are almost certain to argue that Mr. Obama’s health plan is merely a national version of the health care overhaul Mr. Romney implemented as Massachusetts governor.

Mr. Pawlenty told Minnesota Public Radio in a recent interview that he considers Mr. Romney a front-runner because of his name recognition and campaign organization dating back to his failed 2008 presidential run.

Democrats were quick to note the politics of Mr. Pawlenty’s move, too. The Democratic National Committee released a spoof of the executive order that began, “Whereas, my presidential ambitions are of paramount importance …”

The spoof concludes by saying that “all state employees will work for my presidential campaign.”

Mr. Pawlenty has long enjoyed strong popularity ratings among voters, but his presidential ambitions may have put a dent in that as his term ends. Minnesota voters would apparently prefer to see their governor spend more time on home soil than traveling frequently ahead of his probable presidential bid.

A Minnesota Public Radio/Humphrey Institute poll released Wednesday found that 54 percent of the 750 likely voters surveyed disapprove of the governor’s out-of-state campaigning. About the same percentage said they would be unlikely to vote for Mr. Pawlenty if he were the GOP candidate for president in two years.

The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.

The telephone survey also compared whether state voters favor Mr. Pawlenty over Mr. Romney or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the GOP nomination. Voters gave Mr. Romney the edge in a hypothetical matchup with Mr. Pawlenty, but Minnesota’s governor fared better than Mrs. Palin.