Gov. Pawlenty has consistently said that his three trips to Iraq have been to take the temperature of the troops and to thank them for a job well done. He visited Minnesota National Guard members in Iraq earlier this week. Later in the week he spent time with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and ate breakfast with Minnesota soldiers in Kabul.
"Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, the morale of the troops, it's pretty good," Pawlenty said. "They have some questions about this or that, but I would describe the morale as high and the performance as excellent."
It's not all that unusual for governors to go to Iraq. Governors from Oklahoma, Oregon, New York and Utah have been to the country twice. Thirty-two governors have been to Iraq at least once. But only one governor has been to Iraq three times: Tim Pawlenty.
And now some observers are speculating that his trips have two purposes: to build troop morale and help his own political portfolio. "I think it sends a signal to Republicans nationally that he's very interested in expanding that profile and potentially interested in being a part of the ticket," said Amy Walter, with the Cook Political Report. She says the governor has been frequently mentioned by national GOP insiders as a possible vice presidential pick.
Pawlenty is currently serving as co-chair for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential exploratory committee, leading some to speculate that he would be a good running mate for McCain. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman has also been touting Pawlenty's credentials to conservatives.
Amy Walter says there's no doubt the governor's visit builds troop morale and helps his standing among Minnesota families who have loved ones serving overseas. But she also says Pawlenty gets valuable on-the-ground international experience.
"If you think you want to play on the national stage, you really should get to know the national issues and in this day and age understanding the international issues," she said.
For his part, Pawlenty has tried to deflect the vice presidential talk by saying he is committed to finishing his term as governor. He said it's unfair to suggest that his latest visit to the Middle East is politically motivated.
"I felt -- and the National Guard officials agreed -- that this was particularly important that I go at this time to encourage and thank our troops. But that had nothing to do with the trip. I know because of how this stuff works that people always speculate about these things but I can tell you straight out it had nothing to do with the motivation for the trip," he said.
Brian Atwood, dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says Pawlenty's visits to the Middle East give him invaluable foreign policy experience. But he says Pawlenty is also the commander-in-chief of the Minnesota National Guard. He doesn't read too much into Pawlenty visiting Iraq more than any other governor.
"He's not over there on trade missions. He's there because our National Guard are there. And if other governor's haven't done it as much then shame on them. Maybe they should have," Atwood said.
Pawlenty has also been raising his national profile in other ways. He was the only governor to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C. last weekend. The conference attracts both social and fiscal conservatives. The topic of Pawlenty's speech: A bold conservative agenda for the suburbs.