Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday he won't seek a third term next year, but the Republican widely regarded as a 2012 presidential contender declined to talk about his political future.
"I still have a lot of ideas and energies left, but being governor should not be a permanent position for anyone," Pawlenty said, flanked at a Capitol news conference by his wife and two daughters.
He said he was focused on finishing the rest of his term strong, but added, "I don't have any plans beyond that. I don't know what the future holds for me."
A conservative with blue-collar roots, Pawlenty, 48, has been considered a likely White House candidate for months.
His announcement comes as he's in the middle of a prolonged dispute over one of the state's U.S. Senate seats months after the election. The governor hasn't issued an election certificate because Republican Norm Coleman, whose term expired in January, is still contesting the results that tipped the race to Democrat Al Franken by a few hundred votes.
Republican to watch
Pawlenty's success as a right-leaning Republican elected twice in left-leaning Minnesota marked him in national GOP circles as a young politician to watch. He gave his political profile a boost in 2008 when he endorsed John McCain early, then campaigned for the nominee around the country and in many national media interviews.
That work made him a top prospect to be McCain's running mate and he was seen as one of two or three finalists right until the moment McCain upended the campaign by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
If he seeks the presidency, Pawlenty could face a GOP field crowded with former and current governors. Among the potential candidates are Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
If running for president is his goal, there are numerous advantages to vacating the governor's mansion. A 2010 campaign would be costly and potentially difficult. He also will be free to travel to political events and, more important, to key nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
"The Republicans are looking for leaders and his experience as governor gives him an entree," said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta. "One of the things that he would be trying to do is increase his name recogition and visibility throughout the country because outside of Minnesota he isn't known at all."
Pawlenty has taken a conservative's stance on taxes, most recently holding firm against attempts by legislative Democrats to increase some taxes to fill in a massive state budget deficit. Failing to reach a compromise with Democrats, Pawlenty instead invoked executive powers that allow him to trim state spending without legislative consent.
Pawlenty strayed from his tax orthodoxy just once, when in 2005 he proposed and helped pass a 75-cent-a-pack "health impact fee" on cigarettes that critics said was just a creatively named tax.
The governor has followed traditionally conservative stances on most social issues, favoring freer access to guns and opposing abortion and legal partnership rights for gay couples. But he's broken from party orthodoxy on a few issues, speaking out in favor of importing prescription drugs from Canada and promoting pro-environmental business initiatives.
The lawyer and native of South St. Paul served on the Eagan City Council before his election to the state House where he became majority leader. Pawlenty first ran for governor in 2002, and managed to win against a veteran Democratic legislator and a prominent former congressman running for a third party.
He was re-elected in 2006 in another three-way race; despite his two victories, Pawlenty has never exceeded 46 percent of the vote.