There's growing speculation that Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be a GOP candidate for president in 2012, and a speech he's scheduled to give in San Diego Thursday represents a key opportunity for the Minnesota governor to raise his national profile and make his pitch to the party faithful.
Struggling political parties need new messages and new messengers, and Gov. Pawlenty plans to offer both when he speaks at the Republican National Committee's 2009 Summer Meeting. Pawlenty wouldn't get into specifics during a recent session with reporters, but he did say that he planned to talk about improving the GOP.
"Obviously, in the last few election cycles, the Republican Party got its tail kicked and we need to do better," Pawlenty said. "The marketplace of politics has been saying they prefer the products and services of our competitors, and we've lost some market share. And so we've got to step back and say how can we do better? How can we improve? And that's what the speech will address."
Many GOP insiders know Pawlenty from last year's Republican National Convention in St. Paul, and the frequent mention of his name as a possible vice presidential running mate for Sen. John McCain. But this week's RNC gathering gives Pawlenty another chance to introduce himself.
Tony Sutton, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, is in San Diego for the event. Sutton said he's already been hearing positive chatter about Pawlenty.
“...we've got to step back and say, how can we do better? How can we improve? And that's what the speech will address.”Gov. Tim Pawlenty
"It's a small group; there's only about 170 people that are on this committee, but it's an important and influential group," Sutton said. "I think it's the first step if you have any sort of thoughts about taking the national stage."
A Fox News poll this week ranked Pawlenty at the back of the pack among potential GOP candidates for 2012. He was far behind Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and others. Just 1 percent said they would like to see Pawlenty as the GOP nominee. University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said the RNC speech is a critical moment for Pawlenty to build support among party power brokers.
"He's kind of a fresh name," Jacobs said. "There's interest in Tim Pawlenty, but he lacks the name recognition, he lacks the donor base and he lacks the army of supporters and volunteers that he would need for a serious run. This is his chance to start a bit of momentum."
Since announcing he wouldn't seek a third term as governor, Pawlenty has traveled out of state to several GOP events. He'll headline a Republican Governors Association fundraiser next month in Puerto Rico. Pawlenty remains mum about his future political plans, but Jacobs says there's no doubt that he's eyeing 2012.
"Everything Tim Pawlenty is doing is telling you that he is seriously thinking of running for president," Jacobs said. "Trips around the country, the national political action committee that's in the works, the kinds of audiences that he's addressing now; these are all very obvious, very concrete steps that Tim Pawlenty is taking to seriously explore a presidential run."
Pawlenty is downplaying the speculation. He responded the same way last year to vice presidential questions and explains his busy schedule as simply wanting to talk about Republican politics.
"As time allows, I'm going to speak in Minnesota and in other places on what we should do to try to improve the Republican Party," Pawlenty said. "The way to do that is to make sure we have good ideas and good values that make a positive impact in peoples' lives, and that's what we need to do. I'm going to speak to that and I think I have something to say in that regard, so I'm going to try to help."
Whatever his own ambitions might be, Pawlenty will be working in the coming months to help Republicans throughout the nation get elected governor. That campaign commitment comes with the announcement this week that he has been named vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.