(AP) - Not long ago, Minnesota's governor routinely yukked it up with late-night comedians and was hotly pursued for Sunday morning political programs.
But that was before the audacious Jesse Ventura handed the reins to a conventional Tim Pawlenty, a polished Republican who has fast pushed out from his predecessor's shadow and built a name for himself beyond Minnesota.
On Monday, Pawlenty takes over as chairman of the National Governors Association as the organization moves into its centennial year. And by next year, he'll strut his stuff before the Republican establishment when the party's nominating convention comes to town.
Just 46, Pawlenty says he'll stay put until his term ends in 2010, and he won't rule out a bid for a third term. And he denies he's positioning himself for higher office.
"You could drive three minutes south of the Minnesota border and nobody would know or care who I am. And that's OK," Pawlenty said in an interview Thursday.
"I'm energetic but I'm not obsessed with what I'm going to do three years from now," he said. "I could very easily be running a nonprofit or fishing on Lake Vermilion or working somewhere internationally. I have no idea."
Pawlenty caught the eye of national conservatives by consistently opposing state tax increases, even as Minnesota struggled with budget deficits of as much as $4 billion.
He also pressed their favored positions on education, including merit pay for teachers instead of raises based largely on seniority.
At the same time, Pawlenty has appealed to moderate voters by pushing green-energy goals and by easing the purchase of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
In a state that leans slightly left, he managed last year to claim a second term - by less than one percentage point - in an otherwise dismal election for Republicans nationwide.
"He won in Minnesota in the worst of all years," said Chris Tiedeman, a young GOP activist who admires Pawlenty so much he helped launch a "Party of Pawlenty" Web site. In an inaugural posting, Tiedeman described Pawlenty as a model for an ailing party: "Governor Pawlenty has become the GOP brand."
Pawlenty may downplay talk of a national future, but his own moves are stoking it.
He's one of John McCain's most ardent backers, co-chairing the Arizona senator's now-sagging presidential campaign. He regularly features national opinion shapers on his weekly radio show.
“If he were consciously pursuing a plan to achieve national prominence, he is doing all the right things. He's playing all the cards he can play.”David Keene, American Conservative Union
And last week, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman made him the main attraction at a luncheon with Washington political reporters and a private gathering for GOP powerbrokers.
In March, he snagged a speaking slot at the heavily attended Conservative Political Action Conference in between a parade of 2008 presidential candidates.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the invitation reflected Pawlenty's rising-star status -- much like the 3,800-word profile in The Weekly Standard under the headline "Tooting the Horn of Pawlenty."
"If he were consciously pursuing a plan to achieve national prominence, he is doing all the right things," Keene said. "He's playing all the cards he can play."
As comfortable in hockey skates as he is in wingtips, Pawlenty often has trouble hiding boyish tendencies from his days growing up in the meatpacking town of South St. Paul.
He runs notoriously behind schedule, a habit not helped by his delight in tossing a football during road trips or swinging a baseball bat on the Capitol grounds.
A smooth orator, Pawlenty enjoys unloading edgy one-liners on his foes, like the time he compared Democrats backing a tax increase to weak-willed dieters who "celebrate getting out of Weight Watchers by going over to the all-you-can-eat buffet."
Still, he admits he sometimes takes things too far and comes off sounding like a smart-aleck.
Minnesota Democrats have accused Pawlenty for years of putting his ambition ahead of the state's roads, schools and other needs.
"If Tim Pawlenty were not playing for a national audience he would have been less dogmatic about his no-new-taxes pledge," State Democratic Party Chairman Brian Melendez said, adding, "Tim Pawlenty is trying to serve different masters."
As chairman of the National Governors Association, which lobbies Congress on pressing issues at the state level, Pawlenty will spearhead a broad public policy initiative of his choosing.
Past governors have pursued everything from high-school restructuring to combatting obesity; Pawlenty will outline his vision Monday.
The position has hardly been a successful stepping stone. Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, Vermont's Howard Dean and Virginia's Mark Warner all held the post before abbreviated flings in presidential politics. Bill Clinton is the only former chairman who went on to the White House.
"It's a very big jump from the head honcho governor to a nomination," said Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)