The first presidential primary is still 15 months away, but Pawlenty staked his political support with McCain by signing on to the exploratory committee.
"I believe he is an exceptional leader, that the times are calling him out, he has a unique ability to bring people together from both sides of the aisle, and his extraordinary record of courage, of character and accomplishment is what the country needs," Pawlenty said.
The committee is set up to raise money and gauge the viability of the candidate's success. McCain has not officially announced he's running for president. Pawlenty says McCain will announce his decision in the "not-too-distant" future.
The prominent position with the McCain camp revived speculation that Pawlenty is a possible vice-presidential contender. Pawlenty repeated his promise to serve out the remainder of his term as governor.
"I am focused on being governor and will remain governor," he said Monday. "I love Minnesota and just because I'm volunteering to help John McCain doesn't mean I'm not going to stay governor of Minnesota."
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says Pawlenty's decision to support McCain is based on more than just personal admiration.
He says it's a sign that Pawlenty's star is rising in the party and that he may be able to deliver the elusive victory for a Republican presidential candidate in Minnesota.
"The region of the upper Midwest with Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin -- the same electoral votes as Florida. Iowa went Republican in 2004. Wisconsin was very close and Minnesota was also very competitive. So the governor is a key guy in a key region," according to Jacobs.
Pawlenty, a Republican, won re-election in November even as Democrats gained control in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.
Jacobs says Pawlenty holds some of the popular traits often ascribed to McCain.
"He's able to take what are really pretty controversial positions and still be able through the force of his personality and his winsome nature to still appeal to independent voters and even some Democrats. That's quite a feat," he said.
Jacobs points out, though, that Pawlenty also risks getting drawn into McCain's more hawkish stance on the war.
"The policy in Iraq is clearly not going well and it could get even worse and McCain is the guy who's most forcefully argued for substantially increasing the number of troops even more than what President Bush has proposed," Jacobs said.
Last week, Pawlenty lashed out at the Pentagon's decision to extend the Minnesota National Guard's stay in Iraq up to four months past the original deadline. The decision is part of the president's strategy to quell insurgents by increasing troop strength.
Jacobs says, though, that McCain is a proponent of increasing the size of the military and not relying on reserves to boost the number of fighting troops, a position closer to Pawlenty's.
Jacobs says Pawlenty's support will be an important factor when Minnesota hosts the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2008.
"John McCain might be thinking ahead a few years and thinking it'd be really good to have the governor feeling good about us and our campaign, of course confident that he will win the nomination. It also may be a little defensive and heading off the possibility that the governor might sign off with another candidate such as Mitt Romney."
Pawlenty's national stature will get another boost this summer when he takes over as chairman of the National Governors Association.