Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a big step Monday toward running for president next year by forming an exploratory campaign committee.
The committee will allow Pawlenty, a Republican, to raise and spend money as he moves toward a formal campaign announcement.
His announcement came as no surprise, as Pawlenty has been traveling the nation looking and sounding a lot like a candidate for president, for more than a year.
"And that's why today I'm announcing the formation of an exploratory committee to run for president of the United States," he said.
Pawlenty is the first top-tier likely 2012 GOP presidential candidate to register an exploratory campaign with the Federal Election Commission.
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato thinks Pawlenty's decision to get out in front of the pack was a good one.
"For the time being, Pawlenty, who started as the longest of long-shots in the top-tier, is now, I think, reasonably ranked next to Mitt Romney," Sabato said, also noting the former Massachusetts governor. "Romney is the proto-favorite. But he's not a heavy favorite. Pawlenty has made a lot of progress and I think people see him as making a real bid for the nomination."
Pawlenty was first elected governor of Minnesota in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. His signature issue was a "no new taxes" pledge, although he did agree to a statewide fee on cigarettes. Political opponents said his policies caused property taxes and other fees to rise dramatically during his tenure.
Although Pawlenty hasn't distinguished himself from other likely GOP presidential hopefuls on policy, Sabato said, with little money or name recognition the former governor has climbed to the top ranks of possible Republican presidential candidates.
Sabato said now that Pawlenty is the first to form a committee, reporters will expect him to respond to Obama administration decisions about everything from the economy to national security.
"My guess is Pawlenty will be a go-to guy for the national media if only because he's been willing to jump into the cool-pool first," Sabato said.
If that attention comes Pawlenty's way, it will help boost his national profile.
Besides political implications, there are practical reasons to form an exploratory committee, Washington University political science professor Steven Smith said.
Pawlenty has used his Freedom First political action committee to finance much of his national travel thus far. But like any PAC, it can only contribute $5,000 to his likely future presidential campaign.
Every penny Pawlenty's new committee raises could eventually be spent on a presidential campaign.
"Once you formally create an exploratory committee you're signaling your donors that you're going to start raising money in a big way with the hope of using that money toward a formal campaign," Smith said. "Once you file for candidacy all your contributions, even though they were made in the past, are subject to the federal limits."
Pawlenty staffers reportedly urged supporters to hold off writing checks until the first of next month. That's the beginning of the second quarter financial reporting period.
When those second quarter numbers are made public in July, showing a lot of money could be critical to Pawlenty's presidential prospects, Sabato said.
"I don't know what he'll post, but I can guarantee you everyone will look at that number. We're looking at a campaign where the incumbent president is going to spend $1 billion," Sabato said. "I think you have to look long-term and ask 'Can a candidate compete with a president who's going to spend $1 billion?'"
Democrats were quick to criticize Pawlenty's move. State DFL chair Ken Martin said Pawlenty ignored his job as governor to pursue his national ambitions and left the state in terrible financial shape. He said Pawlenty has done nothing to show he deserves a promotion.