Keith Downey, Jeff Johnson and Mary Giuliani Stephens have been working for months to drum up support among party regulars and other potential caucus goers. But the Republican field could be in for a big change when and if former Gov. Pawlenty, who's been out of office seven years, decides to jump in.
A former top aide said Thursday Pawlenty is actively considering a run.
Downey, the former state Republican party chairman, said during a forum broadcast Friday on MPR News that Pawlenty can do whatever he wants.
"I think there are some interesting challenges for a two-term governor who's been out of the state working as a lobbyist for Wall Street in Washington, DC. Especially when you travel this state and you see what people think about politics and politicians and government and these entrenched special interests," Downey said.
Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner who was the party's nominee said he too would welcome Pawlenty to the race. But Johnson said the former governor should respect the wishes of grassroots activists to abide by the party endorsement. If he doesn't, Johnson said he would be ready.
"If he decides to challenge me as the endorsement candidate in the primary, I would run an aggressive campaign," Johnson said. "I believe we would win, because grassroots people are who vote in our primary."
Giuliani Stephens, the mayor of Woodbury, said Pawlenty would have to defend his record if he runs. Giuliani Stephens also noted that state history shows it won't be easy for him to win another term as governor.
"You know, since Minnesota has gone to four-year terms for governors, Minnesotans have never elected a governor to a third term," she said. "So, I think the question is, is that something they'd be willing to do or are they looking for something new? I think Minnesotans might be looking for something new and maybe some new solutions and bold leadership."
Another likely challenge for Pawlenty is that he didn't support Donald Trump for president in 2016. Downey, Johnson and Giuliani Stephens all stressed that they think the president is doing a good job, and they would love to have him campaign for them in Minnesota.
The candidates also addressed recent comments made on Facebook by some fellow Republicans, who warned about Muslim-Americans preparing to "infiltrate" the party's precinct caucuses. All three said people from all faiths are welcome at caucuses. But they stopped short of condemning the warnings.
Johnson said there were some legitimate concerns raised in those comments that should be discussed.
"I know a lot of Muslims who are wonderful Americans and wonderful Minnesotans. But there are some who probably believe that Sharia (law) would be better than the constitution. To just deny that that threat exists at all, I think is pretty naive."
Downey said he too sees real public policy issues that should be addressed, including the radicalization of Muslims and the resettlement of refugees.
"States and the local communities receiving the numbers of people should have an ability to have a say and to understand what's actually happening and the cost of it and the degree of assimilation and these things," he said.
Giuliani Stephens said she also thinks the cost of refugee resettlement deserves attention.
"There are good policy discussions to be had on that issue without making it hatred-filled or targeted kind of discussion," she said.
On other topics, the three GOP candidates said they would roll back the income tax increase on top earners that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton enacted. They all pledged to reduce state taxes and regulations to further improve economic conditions, and largely downplayed the concern over climate change.
And even with Super Bowl fever running hot, Johnson and Downey said they still view the public financing of U.S. Bank Stadium as a mistake.
Giuliani Stephens said she wants to know more about the economic impact to Minnesota from hosting the big game.