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Tim Pawlenty accidentally confirms the obvious, then walks it back

WASHINGTON — Tim Pawlenty seems for all the world like he’s running for president. He even said so today. His campaign of paid staffers, however, beg to disagree.

WASHINGTON — Tim Pawlenty was making trips to Iowa and New Hampshire before the snow melted. He has hired a campaign manager. He has hired a staff. He has filed the necessary FEC paperwork. He is raising money. He has agreed to debate other candidates.

And when talking to CNN’s Piers Morgan, Pawlenty seemed to state the obvious. Asked by the British former newspaperman if he’d take the VP spot behind Donald Trump, Pawlenty responded: “I’m running for president. I’m not putting my hat in the ring rhetorically or ultimately for vice president so I’m focused on running for president.”

That statement, seemingly clear, was quickly walked back on air by Pawlenty himself as soon as the host pressed for a confirmation of what his ears just heard. When Morgan asked if he’d just made his formal announcement, Pawlenty replied, “Well I’ve got an exploratory committee up and running and we’ll have a final or full announcement in the coming weeks here, it won’t be too much longer, but everything is headed in that direction Piers.”

Still, CNN’s headline promoting the interview used the obvious quote: “Pawlenty: ‘I’m running for president.” And that led to all sorts of pushback from the Pawlenty campaign, trying to convince reporters that CNN had jumped the gun.

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“@ report of @ on @ is out of context. Obviously, Pawlenty has exploratory committee to run for President. Not VP,” wrote Pawlenty spox Alex Conant on Twitter, casting the quote as simply a reaction to the Trump VP question.

In the months before his exploratory announcement, it actually mattered as a point of law if Pawlenty said he was running. Once you declare, there are rules to follow about how you can raise money and how you report it. That’s why Pawlenty wouldn’t even come close to the president question as he toured Iowa and New Hampshire in the cold of winter, despite it being somewhat obvious what he was doing at the time.

Thing is though, Pawlenty is actually a presidential candidate right now, though he prefers to say he’s only an exploratory candidate. As NBC’s Chuck Todd explained, if you file paperwork with the FEC (as Pawlenty has), you’re a candidate in the eyes of the law and (after raising $5,000) are subject to reporting requirements. Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and pizza magnate Herman Cain are all presidential candidates officially, whether they’re calling themselves that or not.

The difference is that the way Pawlenty, Romney are proceeding, they get to make news by announcing the exploratory campaign, then again with the actual run announcement.

It’s a bit of political theater, but it says something about the way elections run these days that Pawlenty quite correctly concludes he’s running for president (which he is), it’s treated as a gaffe and a remark taken out of context. In full fairness to the former governor, his extended remarks show very clearly he intends to make an official announcement later, and that’s consistent with his earlier statements. One suspects though that one knows that that announcement will be, in part because a certain Tim P. from Minnesota let it slip.

In the end, all this episode seems to have done for Pawlenty is generate snarky headlines, like this one from AFP: “Pawlenty announces presidential run, campaign denies it.”