By MIKE GLOVER, Associated Press
AMES, Iowa (AP) — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has aggressively laid the foundation for an Iowa caucus campaign, and on Tuesday he promised a relentless focus on the state with plenty of time for one-on-one meetings with activists.
"It seems to me that in Iowa, meeting people and retail politics matters," Pawlenty told The Associated Press after a meeting with about 50 activists. "Getting to know them, and them you, matters. Part of the process is showing up and getting acquainted."
Pawlenty spent about an hour with the activists in a meeting room at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in Ames, speaking briefly and then taking questions. He planned a similar event Tuesday night in Adel and other events Wednesday in Des Moines suburbs.
Pawlenty has formed a presidential exploratory committee and has been the most determined of potential Republican hopefuls in building a network in Iowa. Last week, he named an Iowa legislator to manage his campaign in the state and hired a dozen other top staff to help him organize for the state's leadoff nominating caucuses.
Other Republicans also have made moves in Iowa. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has also formed an exploratory committee, has identified a top staffer to run his Iowa effort, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has hired an Iowa director, and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has identified operatives who would be expected to organize her Iowa campaign if she opts to seek the GOP nomination.
But none has focused as intently on Iowa as Pawlenty, who made it clear that he would follow the traditional strategy of seeking to meet as many Republicans as possible.
"That's the way it's done in Iowa," Pawlenty said. "I don't view it as a strategy. If you want to get people's support, you've got to get acquainted with them and them with you."
Pawlenty said that's a typical practice in the Midwest, but he downplayed any advantage as a former governor of a neighboring state.
"The fact that I'm from a neighboring state and the factor that plays in people's vote is generally overstated," Pawlenty said. "I think that's kind of a red herring, something the pundits hang their hat on. If you name the top five reasons why someone is going to vote for a candidate, their home state is not one of them."
In the past, however, it has helped caucus candidates
Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt all did well in Iowa's leadoff caucuses, and they credited their Midwestern roots for at least part of that success.
Pawlenty acknowledged the Iowa caucuses would be important, but he said that's true for all the candidates.
"You want to get off on the right start, and it will give you a big boost or it will give you a setback, depending on how you finish and we want to finish well," he said. "Iowa is going to be important for all the candidates. It's the first caucus state in the nation. It's the opening salvo on the trail."
Some have argued the caucuses are especially important to Pawlenty because he remains relatively unknown nationally, but he said he's already made inroads in moving from a long shot to a serious contender.
"My name ID nationally a year ago was 15 percent, and now it's 50 percent, which means half of Republicans don't know who I am," said Pawlenty. "If you're a serious candidate for president, your name ID will naturally climb."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)