Image: Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Iowa
Steve Pope  /  AP
Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty arrives at a campaign stop at the Dubuque Golf and Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa, on Saturday.
updated 8/2/2010 10:10:00 AM ET 2010-08-02T14:10:00

Republican Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate, stood before the picture perfect backdrop of an Iowa farm, with eye-high corn stalks and a vibrant red barn at his back.

First, a crop duster swooped over, temporarily drowning out the Minnesota governor's message about authenticity in politics. Then, cows began to moo, eliciting chuckles from the audience as Pawlenty talked about the economy.

The scene captured Pawlenty's broader challenge: Catching and keeping voters' attention in a place that plays a powerful role in culling fields of White House hopefuls.

Even though he hasn't declared a run for president — a decision he says won't come until 2011 — Pawlenty has been honing his delivery and attempting to connect with opinion leaders in Iowa. The three-day foray that began Saturday was something of a dress rehearsal for next year's run-up to the 2012 caucus, the first step in the nominating process.

The official purpose of Pawlenty's visit was to help Republicans on Iowa's fall ballot. The party needs seven more seats to gain control of the House and eight pickups to take the Senate. Pawlenty promoted local candidates at each stop and left most with a check from his political fund.

The trip came on the tail end of a carefully choreographed week. Pawlenty spent an hour fielding questions from political reporters in Washington on Monday and, a few days later, debuted a sleek video that recaps his modest upbringing in a stockyards town and gives his take on the country's problems.

The political die-hards who gave up a summer day to scope out their neighboring governor will likely be among those deciding the caucuses. Like Pawlenty, they're playing coy about their plans.

"Here, people don't make snap judgments. They don't give people their support right off the bat," said Jim Heavens, the Republican mayor of Dyersville. "Just one sashay through here will not get you a lot of votes. You have to keep coming back."

Fayette County GOP chairman Jim Kirkpatrick said Pawlenty would be on his short list, but "it's too early to pick one" candidate.

Other Republicans mentioned as potential challengers to Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Pawlenty is steadily building a presence in Iowa, with three trips featuring public appearances in the past nine months and two more on tap. His weekend entourage included the political director for former President George W. Bush, a past Iowa Republican Party chairman and the head of an influential anti-tax group. He also recently established an Iowa political fund to dole out money to local candidates, although early on all the money came from elsewhere.

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Pawlenty also has raised more than $2.6 million for his national Freedom First PAC, which can be used to pay staff, cover travel or help other candidates. But an AP analysis of federal records showed only $2,000 of the contributions requiring detailed disclosure came from Iowa donors.

While Pawlenty sometimes gets knocked for his lackluster presentation in front of big audiences, he thrives in more intimate settings. His looser side showed Saturday during stops at a country club in Dubuque and the farm in Waverly.

Just shy of 6 feet 3 inches tall himself, Pawlenty climbed a chair and draped his arm around a 6-foot-10-inch state Senate candidate for a photo. He offered to fetch cold sodas from a kiddie pool for people sweating it out in the sun. When Kirkpatrick came looking for a picture, the governor noted the University of Iowa logo on his shirt and jokingly suggested someone with Iowa State gear balance the shot.

Similarly, Pawlenty is methodically working to navigate tricky currents within Iowa politics. His remarks at multiple events concentrated heavily on economic policy and calls to curb federal spending, but he made a point of fitting faith into the mix — a nod to the religious coalition that helped deliver Huckabee's 2008 caucus win.

"Let's remember, our rights and our privileges flow from our creator and not from our member of Congress," Pawlenty said at a fundraiser in Cedar Rapids.

Pawlenty, a member of a large evangelical church back home, attended services Sunday with a Republican activist. Advisers also confirmed the governor made an unpublicized trip to Iowa a few weeks ago to address a private gathering of pastors.

To assert credibility on foreign policy, he mentioned his recent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. America needs to project strength, he said, criticizing the Obama administration for scrapping Bush-era plans for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Such decisions send "messages of equivocation" to American allies, he said.

"We need to make sure there is no confusion about where we stand, what we stand for and who we stand with," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty's concentration on eastern Iowa recognizes the importance of the area in caucuses. Republican stalwart Cheryl Kramer, who owns a bed and breakfast in the area, backed Romney last time but is in search of a new candidate for 2012.

She cut to the chase with Pawlenty, telling him before all those gathered in a country club ballroom, "I know you're interested in running for president."

Pawlenty let the remark slide.

"He's got the saddle and the bridle on," Kramer said in an interview later, adding, "He's a good communicator. He connects well with people. You have to connect with people in order to get them to work for you, and I think he has that gift."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Never too early? Pawlenty visits Iowa 

  1. Closed captioning of: Never too early? Pawlenty visits Iowa 

    >>> former house speaker ran drew ro manoff not giving up the challenge. hammering his opponent and sold his house to help fund his campaign and now we have what looks like a very competitive race. following an robo-poll showing romanoff ahead of bennett , the campaign decided to release a poll. what did it show? bennett could only show a poll up four points so clearly not only spooked by the denver post poll and knowing and realizing they got a race on their hands. they had romanoff narrowing the gap. bennett clearly feeling the heat . here he is on the campaign trail yesterday.

    >> you know, i always said that i completely agreed that no one had the right to run unopposed in the democratic primary in this case. the attack in this ad is completely false. on no planet is anything in it true. there are other reasons why i made all kinds of votes that i made. but that running attack that it's been made because of my fund raising is false. it's an attack on my integrity.

    >> while there's been plenty of debate nationally about whether president obama 's helpful to democrats, in a democratic primary , he's helpful and why bennet running ads starring obama reminding colorado democrats he's the president's pick. by the way, speaking of rocky mountain panic, that same robo-pollster shows a shake-up in the gubernatorial primary. they want mcginnis to run and then bow out and find a replacement candidate but dan maes apparently pulled in this poll and waiting for more polls with a more methodologically nbc-type of guidelines but an maes primary victory is a huge disaster for the republicans if they have any shot at that race. finally, another race we're watching on august 10th , it should be on your radar. race to replace tim pawlenty in minnesota. more spent on the race than the race for governor in 2006 . low 40s for approval ratings in the state. they've gone after him in ads like this from house speaker .

    >> for the past eight years, the governor serving special interest and political ambition. but what about us?

    >> how about some good schools? huh?

    >> hello. i would like --

    >> i just want a burger.

    >> i'm margaret anderson . i look on governor pawlenty and won.

    >> in minnesota may share a border with canada via lake superior but didn't stop the arizona law from coming up last night at the debate. take a listen.

    >> i was the united states senator , woirked in a bipartisan way with senators like john mccain and president bush at the time, former texas governor , understood that the realities of the immigration in this country to try to bring about a comprehensive and rational solution in washington. of course, the right wing'd logs shot that down. i think the arizona law is racist, unenforceable.

    >> mark dayton , former senator bypassed endorsement process and spending a fortune to make that race very, very competitive. by the way, this weekend, where was tim pawlenty ? he was in iowa. the fifth trip in the last year talking about his wife's iowa roots. she used to spend summers in the state apparently. the iowa caucuses may be more than 550 days away but you know, never too early and not "the new york times" treatment today about his trips


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