March 21, 2011 -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty kicked off the presidential campaign season for Republicans today by announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee in a Facebook message to supporters.
"We know what we need to do: grow jobs, limit government spending and tackle entitlements," he says in a video message that emphasizes his mid-America, blue-collar roots. "Join the team and, together, we'll restore America.
"The brave men and women throughout this country's history that have asked for nothing more than the freedom to work hard and get ahead without government getting in the way. For the last eight years, that's just what I did here in Minnesota," he says in the high-quality video, which is set to uplifting orchestra music and features glossy images of Americana interspersed with historical video and shuttered manufacturing plants.
Pawlenty will build his campaign around these blue-collar origins, the compelling personal story of the grandson of immigrants who put himself through college and became the conservative Republican governor of a relatively blue state.
The race among Republicans to challenge President Obama has gotten a late start and Pawlenty is the first major Republican to officially announce his intentions, although the formation of an exploratory committee is still one step removed from a full-blown campaign.
"This exploratory committee will be the next step in the process, not the full announcement but assuming the exploratory committee goes well that will come soon enough," Pawlenty, 50, said on a conference call with friends and family this morning, adding that the move would put a "structure" and "organization in place to take these initial steps to run for president of the United States."
The Republican former governor has been traveling the country in recent months, focusing on early nominating states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and fine-tuning his message in front of potential GOP presidential primary voters.
While not an official declaration of his candidacy, the exploratory committee will allow Pawlenty to begin testing the waters for a Republican presidential bid. He will file papers with the Federal Election Commission today to put the committee in place, according to a Pawlenty aide.
Pawlenty will become the first major candidate to launch an exploratory committee. Two others -- Georgia businessman Herman Cain and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer -- have also taken that step and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced last month he was entering an "explore phase" of a potential presidential campaign.
Gingrich congratulated Pawlenty on taking the plunge in a message on Twitter.
"Congrats You were a great MN Gov, you'd be a great Pres candidate," Gingrich tweeted on Monday, adding that he and his wife "look forward to seeing you and Mary soon," Gingrich said.
A Steep Climb for Pawlenty
By announcing his intentions in late March, Pawlenty is jumping out ahead of much of the rest of the potential GOP field. Pawlenty faces a steeper climb than other potential rivals, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as he introduces himself to voters. In a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, for example, 58 percent of Republican-leaning voters had yet to form an opinion of Pawlenty compared to 19 percent for Romney and 5 percent for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The poll also found that 28 percent of GOP voters viewed Pawlenty favorably, while 15 percent did not. In most surveys, Pawlenty polls in the low single digits when stacked up against other potential GOP presidential nominees, but that might actually be an advantage.
Front-runner status comes with its own set of challenges. Romney, for example, has been facing increasing scrutiny over the similarities between the health care bill he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts and the federal law backed by the Obama administration.
Another question Pawlenty faces is whether he can raise enough money to fund a successful campaign, especially when he will potentially be competing against candidates with the resources to pour large sums of personal money into their campaigns such as Romney and Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
But sources close to Pawlenty have said that the past couple of months were about taking the pulse of donors: If the money wasn't there, he wasn't going to run. That he's making this announcement today suggests he and his team are confident about his ability to raise money.
His record as governor of Minnesota could pose another obstacle. Opponents will likely pounce on his leaving the state with a more than $6 billion deficit.
Ken Martin, state chairman of the Minnesota Democratic Farm-Labor Party, released a statement today asserting that Pawlenty "bankrupt the future of our state."
"Tim Pawlenty left our state facing the largest deficit in Minnesota's 152-year history, drove up property taxes and fees on middle-class families and small businesses alike, all while making draconian cuts to education that forced some schools into four-day weeks," Martin said.
"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."
And, finally, there's the charisma factor. Some critics say Pawlenty doesn't have much of it. But in a series of recent appearances, he has been using a high-energy, high-urgency tone and his political action committee has also released a series of dramatic videos highlighting his travels around the country.
His decision to use his Facebook page to make the announcement is another sign his campaign will employ new media techniques to spread its message.
"With all due respect for President Obama, I think he's taken this country in the wrong direction," Pawlenty said on today's morning's call, audio of which was posted by Politico. "This is the greatest nation this world has ever known and it's in trouble and it needs a new direction and it needs new leadership."
ABC News' Amy Bingham contributed to this report.