Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's close-up could be coming soon — whether he wants it or not.
The Minnesota Supreme Court convenes next month to rule on the long-running Minnesota Senate race. Six months after the polls closed, Democrat Al Franken leads Republican Norm Coleman by a narrow margin after a statewide recount. Franken was declared the winner by a special court in Minnesota, but Coleman has appealed the case to the state Supreme Court
Under the most intriguing scenario, Pawlenty would be forced to decide between seating Franken or declining to do so while the appeals of fellow Republican Coleman — and an increasingly unpopular recount — continue.
Or the seemingly never-ending election game could take another spin — in Pawlenty's favor.
If the court ties his hands, perhaps by ordering him to sign Franken's election certificate, the relatively low-profile governor could benefit from the spectacle of a Republican officeholder being forced to seat someone who gives Democrats 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans could view Pawlenty as Democrats did former Vice President Al Gore — a good party man whose hand was forced by judges.
Deciding whether to sign the election certificate that would send Franken to Washington is a tough decision on its own. Looming in the background is Pawlenty's own political future, loath as he is to admit it.
Currently in his second-term as governor, Pawlenty could run for re-election in 2010. Or the finalist for Sen. John McCain's vice presidential nomination last year could turn his attention to a potential presidential bid in 2012.
Patience being tested
A decision on the recount has clear implications for either path. National Republicans have goaded Coleman on and would surely expect Pawlenty to help his fight. Polls in Minnesota, meanwhile, show most of the famously patient state's residents would like the recount fracas to end as soon as possible.
Pawlenty, though, insists his own political decisions can be insulated from the recount.
"It's really not connected to those issues or that speculation at all," he said in a brief interview with The Associated Press. "We're going to follow the law. We'll follow what the law requires and the court requires regardless of any other considerations."
Republicans who have worked with Pawlenty say they believe him, even if it seems difficult to separate the decision from his future.
"Right now, I think Governor Pawlenty is more focused on the people of Minnesota than any broader national calculation," said Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "It's a fair question to ask, but I think he's focused on Minnesota."
Many others are dubious.
Will he or won't he?
Kathryn L. Pearson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, said reading the implications of what Pawlenty's decision says about his future ambitions is a favorite pastime in the state. And Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said his decision will color how GOP primary voters might feel about him.
"There are probably people in the Republican Party who would never forgive him, you can make that assumption," Baker said. "On the other hand, if he signs Franken's certificate he gets a chapter in Profiles in Courage, even if it may not help him."
Pawlenty's path could all come down to the court, said Guy Charles, a professor who specializes in election law at Duke University Law School.
"If the court rules in favor of Franken and says he needs to sign a certificate, then I think the governor's hand is pushed," said Charles, who recently left the University of Minnesota law school. "But even if the court rules in Franken's favor and they don't order a certificate, then he can argue that all of Coleman's appeals need to be exhausted."
In Minnesota, where the recount has rumbled on for months, chatter has focused more on Pawlenty's potential choice.
"He's never faced a decision quite like this," Pearson said.
The small matter of a court ruling hasn't stopped outside parties from pressuring Pawlenty. Last week, local Democrats put up a billboard on the highway connecting the Twin Cities that urges Pawlenty to seat Franken. National Republicans, including new GOP Chairman Michael Steele, have publicly lobbied for the recount battle to continue.
In the meantime, Pawlenty is never far from reminders that Minnesota has only one senator while other states have two.
Pawlenty was in Washington earlier this month for a meeting on flood protections for North Dakota and Minnesota. In a packed room at the Capitol, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., paused and looked across the table at Pawlenty, chuckling, "We have three senators working on this. And, hopefully, someday soon four."
Pawlenty gamely laughed, but afterward acknowledged he felt the absence too.
"Any time you don't have a full complement in a congressional delegation that puts your state at a disadvantage," he said. "But it also has to be balanced against the need to make sure our election process is fair and appropriate."