The confetti had barely settled after the inauguration of George W. Bush when hundreds of the nation's top conservative activists gathered in Orlando, Fla., during the last week in January for a meeting of the Council on National Policy.
Members of the council, an influential and private group that works behind the scenes to influence Republican politics, were already pondering the election in 2008.
Several noted that for the first time in many presidential cycles, prominent social conservatives have yet to identify a potential favorite.
In informal conversations, as described by two of the participants, more than a dozen names were thrown around -- most notably that of popular conservative Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Other potential candidates such as Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were discussed as well, though Bush has said he will not run in 2008.
The participants, including respected commentator Paul Weyrich and the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, agreed that prominent conservatives should coordinate efforts to cultivate the candidate who best represents "values voters," and Pawlenty fits that description.
"He seems to be in line with the views of what we now call the 'values voters,' which are very important to the future of the Republicans," said Weyrich, who says he remains undecided about whom he'll support in 2008.
"There aren't a whole lot of candidates in that position. [Former New York Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani, he's not satisfactory. [New York Gov. George] Pataki is not satisfactory, you go down the list."
Pawlenty, 44, is a popular conservative governor in a traditionally Democratic state, and is open to a run for the presidency but he has made no decisions, according to associates. His representatives would not speculate about his plans, saying he is preparing for what will be a contentious legislative session this year.
"Governor Pawlenty enjoys his job and is focused on being the best governor he can be," said his chief spokesman, Brian McClung.
Two people familiar with his political planning say Pawlenty wants to expand his political profile with the hopes of landing on a short list for president -- or potentially for vice president or Senate candidate.
At Bush's inauguration, a who's who of conservative media commentators, including the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes and Pulitzer-Prize winner Charles Krauthammer, wanted to meet with Pawlenty.
He addressed a meeting of the influential Club for Growth in New York and spoke to conservative insiders at anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's Wednesday group in Washington. Both appearances won rave reviews.
And he has impressed conservatives of all stripes with his ability to frame his agenda and sell it to Minnesota voters.
He wins over audiences with his quick wit -- often self-deprecating -- his humble personal style and his ability to speak at length without notes.
Admirers compare Pawlenty to respected Republicans. "He has a sense of where he wants to lead the country, just like President Reagan," said one top Minnesota Republican.
Democrats have compared his speaking skills and ability to frame issues to Bill Clinton's and his political legacy has been compared to Hubert Humphrey -- one Republican said Pawlenty could be for state Republicans what Humphrey was for state Democrats.