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The former Massachusetts governor lost his first bid in 2008 and again is seeking the nomination of a party that historically has nominated a candidate who had run previously.

Given an opportunity to go after Romney in a Monday morning appearance on network television, Pawlenty demurred, saying he’d prefer to talk about his own presidential traits than criticize others. He did acknowledge he probably wouldn’t be able to compete with the former private equity investment firm executive in terms of fundraising.

However, while criticizing Obama’s candidness about the depths of the nation’s fiscal crisis, he also subtly called on his would-be GOP rivals to be honest about the problems.

“It’s time for America’s president — and anyone who wants to be president — to look you in the eye and tell you the truth,” he said.

The appearance was one in a highly scripted, multi-format campaign roll-out that began Sunday evening with an internet video and continued Monday morning with Pawlenty’s appearances on all the network news morning programs. It is part of an 18-month ramp-up that began with Pawlenty’s first Iowa trip as a possible candidate, and is aimed at branding him as the fresh-faced, but tough-minded executive able to take on an incumbent Democratic president.

Pawlenty, who must win the party nomination before getting the chance to take on Obama, virtually ignored his GOP rivals in an announcement video, a column published in USA Today and his speech.

Pawlenty’s Monday visit was his 14th to Iowa since the 2008 election, more than any candidate except former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

The little-known Midwesterner hopes an Iowa victory will give him a boost into next-up New Hampshire and beyond, a strategy that carries potential benefits and risks.

If he wins Iowa, as he says he must, Pawlenty could emerge as the chief rival to Romney, who lost the GOP nomination in 2008 and ranks higher in polls this year. If Pawlenty falls short, however, he’ll have to reevaluate the viability of his bid for the Republican nomination, despite the two years’ groundwork he’s laid in his neighboring state.

“In Iowa, he is all in. All his cards are right out on the table,” said Bob Haus, a veteran Iowa GOP strategist who managed Fred Thompson’s 2008 caucus campaign and is uncommitted for 2012.

Pawlenty has used his visits to appeal to many of the sometimes fractious segments of Iowa’s GOP base, seeking to compete for all parts of the party.

“He fits with the social conservatives, has the background of a budget cutter, and he’s strong with national security conservatives. Plus, he’s a good guy, and he’s here, working it,” said Richard Schwarm, a confidant of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and a former state GOP chairman who so far hasn’t chosen a candidate to back in the caucuses.

Pawlenty appeared Monday on NBC’s “Today” show and CBS’s “The Early Show.”