- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2011

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, trying to break out of the crowded pack of would-be contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, took a step forward Monday with the announcement of a presidential exploratory committee.

Taking a cue from other populist politicians, Mr. Pawlenty delivered his news directly to supporters, making his announcement via the social media sites Facebook and Twitter.

“At a young age, I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship, and the face of job loss,” Mr. Pawlenty said in his videotaped announcement. “Over the last year, I’ve traveled to nearly every state in the country, and I know many Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I lived it.”

Mr. Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich are the first Republican contenders to form exploratory committees, a step that allows candidates to raise money and hire staff while avoiding some of the restrictions that would come with a formal announcement.

The 50-year-old father of two served consecutive terms as a Republican governor in Democratic-leaning Minnesota, where he held the line on new taxes and earned a reputation as a budget hawk.

Since stepping down in Minnesota in 2010, Mr. Pawlenty has worked diligently to raise his profile as a potential national candidate, crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire, reaching out to evangelicals, social activists and tea party leaders across the country, and appearing regularly on political talk shows to address current events.

He also penned the requisite political biography, “Courage to Stand: An American Story,” in which he recalled lessons learned growing up in a middle-class family in the blue-collar town of South St. Paul and paying his way through college and law school with a job in a grocery store.

Mr. Pawlenty, who consistently trails better-known potential candidates such as Mr. Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in name-recognition polls, is counting on strong support from social conservatives, especially in early primary battlegrounds like Iowa, to break through.

He called the Obama administration’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act against court challenges “disappointing,” and at last month’s Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Iowa, Mr. Pawlenty drew cheers by reminding the evangelicals and social conservatives in the audience that he is opposed to gay marriage.

“We have people in Washington, D.C., who say marriage will be defined however we feel like defining it,” Mr. Pawlenty said. “No, it won’t. It should be defined as between a man and a woman.”

Mr. Pawlenty’s grass-roots approach to Iowa politicking is working, according to Iowa committeeman Steve Scheffler, one of the Faith and Freedom forum organizers.

“He’s doing all the right things. He’s visited the state many times, he’s talking with caucus-goers, he’s making the rounds. People in Iowa expect some courting from their candidates,” Mr. Scheffler said, “and he’s doing that.”

Mr. Scheffler said he thinks Mr. Pawlenty, Mr. Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are the three would-be candidates currently laying the groundwork needed to win in Iowa.

The Minnesotan is scheduled to return to Iowa and New Hampshire next month.

With would-be candidates like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee noncommittal about running in 2012, the potential GOP field has attracted a wide array of possible candidates — everyone from former pizza-chain executive Herman Cain and New York real-estate mogul Donald Trump to 2008 runner-up Mr. Romney and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, none of whom have officially announced to run.

But sources close to Mr. Pawlenty told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune there’s little “exploratory” about the former governor’s run.

The announcement is likely to spur some of the fence-sitting candidates to action — the first 2012 presidential candidates’ debate is scheduled May 2 at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, with another Fox-televised debate coming up in South Carolina on May 5.

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