WASHINGTON — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty confirmed today what has been widely expected since he first said he wouldn’t run for governor again: He’s exploring a bid for president.
The news came in a video on Facebook, with stark images of shuttered factories contrasting against bright-colored optimistic Americana of fields and flags. Pawlenty said Americans hoping for prosperity need no more than “the freedom to work hard and get ahead without the government getting in the way.”
He pledged to take government back from a threat unnamed — if his other speeches are an indication, he means the Obama administration — and held up Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln as leaders who personified and stood up for the values he holds dear.
And over swelling music, Pawlenty finally proclaimed: “And that’s why today, I’m announcing an exploratory committee to run for president of the United States.”
Pawlenty is the first top-tier presidential contender to announce an exploratory committee, though he’s far from the only person running. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is exploring a bid, but hasn’t formed the committee, while two lesser-known candidates, Tea Party icon and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, have already taken the step Pawlenty announced today.
Other likely candidates like Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Haley Barbour are doing the work of a presidential hopeful without the formality, while a bevy of potential candidates like Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and Mitch Daniels hem and haw over their options. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the other Minnesotan mulling a bid, is probably a bit more in the former camp than the latter, and she’s said she’ll decide whether or not to run by early summer.
On a conference call with family members and key supporters this morning, Pawlenty said his exploratory committee would be “the next step in the process.” Audio of the call was obtained and posted online by POLITICO.
“It’s not the full announcement, but assuming the exploratory committee goes well, that will come soon enough,” Pawlenty said, adding that this step “will put a formal committee in place, a structure in place, an organization in place to take these initial steps to run for president of the United States.”
Though national Democrats didn’t immediately respond to Pawlenty’s announcement, state party leaders made clear they planned on highlighting his record in Minnesota, saying it’s not nearly as rosy as he lets on.
“Our former governor’s announcement of an exploratory committee shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point — he’s spent the better part of his last two years in office ignoring the needs of his state while trying to woo the Republican base,” state DFL chairman Ken Martin said in a statement. “Tim Pawlenty bankrupt the future of our state, the last thing he deserves is a chance to do it to our nation.
“There’s nothing in Tim Pawlenty’s record that suggests he should get a promotion. Tim Pawlenty has failed at running the state he was supposed to lead at every turn — and no amount of exploring will change that simple fact.”
Pawlenty’s exploratory campaign will be headquartered in Minnesota, several sources close to him said Monday, probably in the Twin Cities metro area.
While an announcement with details on committee leadership and staff is expected later this week, Pawlenty has for (at least) the last year and a half been building a shadow campaign through his political action committee, ready and waiting for this very announcement.
Indeed Pawlenty had much of the core team lined up in late 2009, well before his second term of office ended. It was common during his last year for reporters covering the governor to be directed by either his official spokesman to his PAC spokesman, or vice versa.
That group includes Phil Musser, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association who runs Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC; Alex Conant, Pawlenty’s lead spokesman and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee; and top advisers like Terry Nelson (former political director for President Bush’s 2004 campaign), Sarah Taylor Fagen (former political director in the W. Bush White House) and former Rep. Vin Weber.
And in the recent weeks and months, Pawlenty has been building his team in the early primary states. His biggest staffing footprint is in Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, which should be little surprise as Iowa is the first caucus state and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary follows usually a week later.
Nelson and Taylor Fagen are both native Iowans, and his team there includes respected strategists Chuck Larson and Karen Slifka. Pawlenty has had an Iowa staffer on the ground for months, and another (Annie Kelly) just deployed recently. And Pawlenty scored a major coup earlier this month by landing Eric Woolson, the guy who led Mike Huckabee’s upset win in the state in 2008.
In New Hampshire, Pawlenty has John Lyons, chairman of the state board of education, and hired Sarah Crawford, a campaign veteran of John McCain’s efforts, to run his PAC there. Most recently, he added former Mitt Romney adviser Rich Killion, a veteran New Hampshire strategist.
Here on Capitol Hill, Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen are leading Pawlenty’s efforts, which are primarily in the form of meet-and-greets with the former governor and a small group of members. They’re a chance, Kline said, for members to “sit down and get to know him.”
“I’m trying to nudge everybody,” Kline said. “There are a number of people who are interested. We’re going to try to find opportunities for more of our colleagues to find out more about him.
“I believe very much that whenever people get to know him and hear what he’s got to say they’ll like him more and more. I think he’d be an excellent president, he’s a very, very good candidate and I just want people to have that opportunity.”
Rep. Chip Cravaack attended the most recent T-Paw event, on Feb. 28. He is still officially uncommitted, but said he likes what he heard. “I want to hear what he has to say,” Cravaack said a day after that meeting. “Obviously, he was our governor, so I’m kind of partial to him.”
The other Republican in Minnesota’s delegation, Michele Bachmann, is of course mulling a bid of her own.
The Washington Post’s Jon Collins says Tim Pawlenty is largely unknown, and his first challenge is to get voters to know who he is.
MPR’s Bob Collins says Pawlenty’s announcement today isn’t all that newsworthy, as it has been obvious for years that Pawlenty is running for president..
University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato puts Pawlenty a solid second (behind Mitt Romney) in the GOP field.
Experts weigh in at POLITICO’s Arena on whether Pawlenty can win the White House.
And PolitiFact fact-checks Pawlenty’s recent statements.