The focus these days seems to be more on which Republican might run for president than who is actually running, as the battle for the GOP nomination heats up with the summer months. Sarah Palin's recent East Coast bus tour got more attention than Mitt Romney's formal campaign announcement. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's flirting with a possible run has grabbed more of the spotlight than Rep. Michele Bachmann's bid.
But one candidate who lurks under the radar has generated some speculation that he could ultimately be the last man standing: Tim Pawlenty.
"In any competition, it's important to know who the rivals are and having known Pawlenty and knowing something about the opponents, he's going to be formidable," Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said.
The former Minnesota governor formally threw his hat into the GOP campaign ring three weeks ago, launched a whirlwind week-long tour that took him from Iowa to Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, and trotted out a series of slick videos. He even unveiled an ambitious economic plan but has been overshadowed by all the talk about more high-profile Republicans, whether they are running for president or not.
You need look no further than the polls for evidence of how little Pawlenty has resonated with voters. In the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, Pawlenty trailed President Obama by 11 points in a potential matchup for the White House. By comparison, Romney, the presumptive Republican front-runner, ran evenly with Obama. Overall, fewer than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents -- 47 percent -- said they were satisfied with their choice of candidates for the party's nomination.
For a candidate who has to get off to a strong start in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in eight months if he is to secure the nomination, Pawlenty, 50, clearly has a lot of ground to make up. Good thing he's got a lot of time to do it.
"Even now, only about 50 percent of the Republicans nationally even know my name," Pawlenty told ABC's Christiane Amanpour recently on "This Week." "So we have to get the name ID up and then convert that, of course, to support.
"But if you're a serious candidate for president, that will happen naturally over time. But I like the fact that most of the other candidates are really well known and yet they don't really have a strong front-running position, and that gives us time and space to be able to advance our campaign."
His campaign roll-out was a start. The five-day tour included 10 television appearances, five radio appearances, including one with Rush Limbaugh, and more than 200 reporters attending the four events that were open to the media, spokesman Alex Conant said.
In all, Conant added, the tour reached 50 million people directly and generated more than 150 stories. But it also received less coverage than it might have otherwise because of the disastrous tornado in Joplin, Mo., that killed 138 people. The very next week, Palin's bus tour, especially her high-profile meeting with Donald Trump in New York City, generated far more fanfare.
But some believe that helped Pawlenty, too.
Ari Fleischer, who served as White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, tweeted, "Something tells me Pawlenty gains [with] all the hype and drama around Palin and Trump. Sometimes slow and steady does win the race."
Pawlenty 'Would Light Up a Room'
Pawlenty has opted to log countless hours on the ground in the Hawkeye State, meeting one-on-one with voters at stop after stop. It is a strategy, he hopes, that will pay dividends come the winter, even though, at the moment, he appears to be a candidate more out of the spotlight than in it. He hit New Hampshire -- site of the nation's first primary -- recently where he will face an uphill battle against Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Even then, most of the attention was directed westward, at Alaska, where tens of thousands of Palin's emails were dumped into the arms of the awaiting media.
Despite all the talk about who's not in the race at this point -- Palin, Trump, Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels -- Stanley Kurtz argued in National Review online that the candidate who could, and should, emerge as the GOP nominee is staring Republicans right in the face.
"Tim Pawlenty is a great candidate," Kurtz wrote. "It's just plain nuts not to see this, emphasize it, and take advantage of it. Instead of pining away for Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan or Scott Walker to enter the race, why not wake up and recognize that Tim Pawlenty has already got everything the GOP is looking for; with two successful gubernatorial terms worth of experience to boot. What's not to like?
"Tim Pawlenty has already beaten the Democrats in a government shut-down battle. He's defeated public-employee unions in a high-stakes strike. He was regularly rated as one of the most fiscally conservative governors in the nation. And he managed to do it all in a blue state."
Few people know politics in the state of Minnesota better than Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, and Jacobs believes Pawlenty will be a force to be reckoned with.
"One of the things about him is he makes very few unforced errors," Jacobs said in an interview with ABC News. "Compare that to a guy like Newt Gingrich who in the first hours of his campaign had practically slit his throat. You start to go through all the candidates; almost all of them have really fatal flaws. Pawlenty doesn't have a fatal flaw.
"This is not a frivolous effort. He's very smart. Before he does something he thinks it through very thoroughly. He's someone with a lot of confidence in himself. He's had a lot of success. And that's going to take him pretty far, especially when you look at the other candidates. Now he may not be the first choice of many of the donors and the primary and caucus voters, but he could be their second or third choice. And he's the only candidate, I think, who checks off as a true social conservative."
One of the main knocks on Pawlenty is that he lacks the charisma necessary to unite the Republican base and win the GOP nomination. There's even a website that tries to pounce on the argument that Pawlenty is simply too bland. But that's not so, Jacobs said.
"To be honest, I think that says more about the current definition of charisma than it does about Pawlenty," he said. "No one who is serious about Minnesota politics and really knew what was going on would have described Pawlenty as bland. He was a guy in Minnesota during his eight years as governor who dominated, who would light up a room, who set an agenda."
Money a Potential Problem for Pawlenty
Instead, Jacobs said, the chief stumbling block for Pawlenty could prove to be his war chest. Romney, for instance, raked in a $10 million in one day. If Pawlenty can collect that same haul in the course of the entire second-quarter reporting period, a three-month-long stretch, then he should be happy.
"The real key is fundraising numbers," he said. "If Pawlenty is below $10 million, he's got a big problem. If he's above $10 million, then it means he's really starting to build traction among the donor base."
Ultimately, the key for the former Minnesota governor, Jacobs said, will be to survive the early states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and make voters start to look at which candidate might have the electability necessary to defeat President Obama in the general election.
"With each state that passes, his prospects will improve and the field is going to winnow," Jacobs said. "And then the issue of electability rises to the fore. As soon as we move to that issue, Pawlenty is going to start to look very strong."