- Associated Press - Sunday, April 17, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa | Republican Tim Pawlenty - “T-Paw” to his supporters - has increasingly tied himself to the new crop of grass-roots activists in the 2012 presidential campaign.

So maybe it’s time to call the former Minnesota governor “Tea-Paw.”

He says his aggressive outreach to tea party audiences is one important part of a strategy to assemble the diverse network of backers he needs to go national and win the 2012 GOP nomination for president. He’s not focusing solely on this emerging force in party politics, he says, perhaps mindful not to alienate other Republican groups.

“I’m not trying to introduce myself to the tea party. I’m trying to introduce myself to the whole party … because I’m not known outside of Minnesota,” Mr. Pawlenty told the Associated Press in a telephone interview before his weekend appearances at tea party rallies in Des Moines, Iowa, and in Boston. He spoke at the movement’s national summit in Phoenix in February.

A little-known Midwesterner trying to break out of a crowded GOP field, Mr. Pawlenty has said he needs to “win or do very well” in Iowa’s lead-off caucuses by attracting social conservatives and pro-business conservatives as well as newly motivated tea party followers. They make up a chunk of the state’s electorate: A Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed last fall that 39 percent of Iowa voters said they supported the movement.

But Mr. Pawlenty faces stiff competition for the allegiance of Iowa’s tea partyers from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and others.

“There may be some folks who are running as candidates who are more deeply ingrained, or were ingrained earlier, in the tea party movement,” he said in the interview. “As tea party members think about who they want not only to represent the conservative coalition, but to win the election, I think we’re going to be the candidate that presents the total package.”

Mr. Pawlenty drew on the movement’s critical eye about spending and the reach of government during his speech to about 200 tea party supporters who braved a harsh spring wind at the rally in Des Moines.

“We’re here today to send them this message: Don’t tread on me,” he said, borrowing the line from the flags common at tea party rallies.

Cheers greeted Mr. Pawlenty when he hit on other familiar themes, including opposition to raising the government’s borrowing authority and support for a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

“I think one of our basic messages is, the government’s too damn big,” he said.

Mr. Pawlenty might seem an odd fit as the choice of a movement that sprung up a decade after he rose to GOP leadership in Democratic-leaning Minnesota. He was not invited to his home state’s first tea party rally at the state Capitol in St. Paul two years ago, and was a warm-up act last year behind Mrs. Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, also a tea party favorite.

But some Iowa tea partyers say Mr. Pawlenty’s fiscal record in Minnesota earns him credibility. He was governor during a time of recurring deficits and battles with Democrats over his refusal to consider tax increases.

Others see Mr. Pawlenty as a latecomer and are leaning toward White House prospects with longer ties to the movement but narrower overall appeal, such as Mrs. Bachmann.

Mrs. Bachmann told a tea party gathering of 350 people in South Carolina on Saturday that she doesn’t think President Obama is “on our side anymore” as she blamed him for a “foolish” war in Libya and high gasoline prices.

She also said a tea party movement that pundits say is waning is actually winning, citing polls showing Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating flagging.

“We’re winning. We’re winning. 2012 is entirely possible for us to send a change-of-address form to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” she said.

c Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Bluffton, S.C., contributed to this report.

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