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Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced Tuesday that he will not run for a third term, fueling speculation that he's preparing for a 2012 presidential bid and creating a wide-open race for governor next year.
Pawlenty's announcement isn't a total surprise, given that he's been mulling his options for some time. But the timing of the announcement did surprise the media, the governor's staff and even the candidates hoping to replace him.
The governor announced his decision before a packed room or reporters, supporters and friends. His wife, Mary, his two daughters, and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau stood by his side. He said he was announcing his decision now to give Republican candidates enough time to prepare a campaign, and dismissed any notion that he would take it easy during the final 19 months of his term - joking at one point that his announcement wasn't a "wake."
"I still have a lot of ideas and energy left, but being governor should not be a permanent position for anyone," he said. "When it comes to how long someone should stay in an elected position, a little less is better than too much."
As for his political future, Pawlenty wouldn't say whether he will make a run for president in 2012.
"I don't have any plans beyond serving out my term, and so I'm not ruling anything in or out. My plan is to finish out my term."
He added, however, that the national Republican party needs to do more work to win back voters, and said he will help with that effort.
One of the tasks directly in front of Pawlenty is balancing the state's budget. Pawlenty announced a few weeks ago that he will not call lawmakers back for a special session and will instead balance the budget on his own. He has said he will announce which programs he will cut before July 1.
The governor downplayed any notion that he would drag his feet on issuing an election certificate in Minnesota's ongoing Senate contest. The state Supreme Court is currently considering Republican Norm Coleman's appeal of a lower court ruling that declared Democrat Al Franken the winner, and Franken is asking the court to order Pawlenty to issue the certificate when the case is resolved.
“There's a lot of important work to be done [during the rest of the term]. Beyond that, I don't know what my plans are.”Gov. Tim Pawlenty
"I think you guys have really overbaked that issue," Pawlenty said. "You are really spinning out of control on it. I'm going to do whatever the court says. When the court decides that issue, as soon as I'm directed or required to sign that certificate , I will. I'm not going to hold it up or delay it in any fashion so that presents no problem for me at all." Pawlenty listed his biggest accomplishments as reforming the education system, moving the state toward clean energy and holding the line on taxes and government growth. He said his biggest disappointments were pushing too hard against Democrats in his first year in office, and not working more closely with Native American tribes on his failed plan to expand gambling.
He first got a taste of national politics last year when he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, visiting more than a half-dozen states. Partly because of those trips, he was widely considered a possible running mate for the Arizona Senator.
"You look at John McCain's life, it is a story and message that speaks volumes, eloquently and deeply about our country and our values and our party," Pawlenty said in a campaign appearance last summer. "Newsweek said this about John McCain a few years ago. His character has been tested in ways that other politicians can only imagine, and you know what I'm talking about."
In the end, McCain didn't choose Pawlenty but another governor, Alaska's Sarah Palin. And Pawlenty took none of the blame when the GOP ticket went on to defeat in November.
It was a Republican vice-president who first set Pawlenty on the path for governor.
In 2001, then-Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty was considering a run for the U.S. Senate -- a run that would have forced an endorsement battle with then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
Pawlenty dropped that bid on the very morning he was going to announce, after a chat with Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Vice President Dick Cheney called me and said that he had been in touch with the president. And that on behalf of the president and the Vice President of the United States, they asked that I not go forward with this effort and not engage in the battle against Norm Coleman and eventually against Paul Wellstone," Pawlenty said at the time. "For the good of the party, I am going to not pursue exploring the United States Senate in the 2002 election."
Instead, Pawlenty turned his focus to the governor's race in 2002. He won a marathon Republican endorsement battle against millionaire businessman Brian Sullivan.
In the months leading up to the convention, Pawlenty shaped a message that he relies on when he talks to Republicans today -- that the party should be about Sam's Club, not the country club.
"This is not just the party of big business, or the job environment or cutting taxes. This is the party that's gotta have somebody who has a blue collar background, who understands that part of what government needs to do is provide opportunities for folks," Pawlenty said.
As many Minnesotans first learned during the 2002 campaign, Pawlenty grew up in South St. Paul. He is the son of a truck driver. His mother died when he was young, and he was the first in his family to go to college.
His background, along with his no-new-taxes pledge, helped him win a plurality of the vote in a three-person race, and he entered office as one of the most conservative governors the state had seen in some time.
In his first year in office, he signed a bill that allows Minnesotans to carry concealed handguns, and one that requires a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion. And he erased a $4.5 billion state budget deficit without raising taxes.
He has also learned how to rev up a partisan crowd, as evidenced by his address to Republican state convention delegates when he was endorsed for re-election in 2006.
"I can tell you what your worst nightmare is. It's one of the big spendin', tax raisin', abortion-promotin', gay marriage-embracin', more-welfare-without-accountability-lovin', school-reform-resistin', illegal-immigration-supportin' Democrats for governor who think Hillary Clinton should be president of the United States," he said at the time.
Some have argued that Pawlenty's budget choices left the state in worse shape. They say he's cut access to health insurance, that Minnesota schools are underfunded, and that other public services are getting short shrift. It was on his watch that the state saw its first-ever partial government shutdown in 2005.
Democrats also say he balanced the books by increasing user fees -- most notably a cigarette fee -- and forced property tax increases by passing on the state's budget problems to local governments.
In 2006, DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina criticized Pawlenty for touting his working-class roots and then turning his back on working men and women.
"This guy is a faker. And he comes off as such a nice person. He isn't. He's turned into a very mean-spirited person," Rukavina said.
However, 46 percent of the voters in another three-person race disagreed with Rukavina and elected Pawlenty to a second term.
That election -- in a year when Republicans were routed across the country -- helped raise the governor's national profile.
Pawlenty's announcement sent Republicans who might have an interest in running for governor scrambling. Former State Auditor Pat Anderson said she's interested and will make a decision in a month or so. She expects a wide field of Republicans to enter the race.
"There are several people who are considering it," she said. "I think the announcement came about a month before a lot of expected it to happen. Many people thought he would run for a third term, so you're catching the Republicans a little off balance in that sense."
Others on the list include state Sens. David Hann and Geoff Michel, state Reps. Marty Seifert, Paul Kohls and Laura Brod, former state legislator Charlie Weaver and private businessman Brian Sullivan. There are also 10 DFLers who have either filed paperwork or are said to be interested in running. They include former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, former state representative Matt Entenza, and other current lawmakers, Paul Thissen, Tom Bakk and John Marty.
While the governor said he doesn't know what he'll be doing in the future, he has at least two out-of-state functions scheduled for this month that might give a hint. He's speaking to a meeting of college Republicans on Friday and will speak before the Arkansas Republican Party on June 26th.