Feb. 9, 2005 — -- 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.
"He has demonstrated that he is solution-oriented," said Weyrich, whose guidance could influence some conservative voters in 2008. "When a problem is presented to him, he doesn't just say, well, this is my deal and you can take it or leave it. He really looks for constructive ways that he can compromise without giving away his principles."
Pawlenty will almost certainly run for re-election in 2006 and has begun to raise money at an expeditious clip. There is also speculation he may run for Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton's seat. Dayton has decided not to seek re-election.
The son of a truck driver, Pawlenty grew up in an average-income home in South St. Paul. He graduated from the University of Minnesota for college and law school. He became a city prosecutor, member of the Eagan City Council and later served as the majority leader in the Statehouse.
Since winning a hard-fought race for governor in 2002, Pawlenty has reduced the state's budget deficit, which was one of the largest in the country, largely by cutting the rate of spending growth.
His current political priorities are reflected in his latest budget, which he presented last month to the Legislature. At a time when most governors are faced with the prospect of significantly reducing spending or raising taxes, Pawlenty was able to write a blueprint that grows the state government. Democrats accuse Pawlenty of postponing difficult budget decisions by fiscal smoke and mirrors.
Critics argue that he is shifting the burden of taxation from state to local government.
"He's compiling a legacy of chronically unbalanced budgets and a failure of leadership," said Bill Amberg, a spokesman for state Democrats.
Pawlenty has earned praise from some Democrats for supporting a program designed to allow Minnesotans to buy prescription drugs from Canada and for working to improve the state's ability to purchase cheaper drugs for Medicare recipients.
There is at least one departure from conservative orthodoxy in this new budget -- support for profit-sharing between casinos operated by American Indian tribes and the state government -- and his help in brokering a potential agreement to build a new casino near Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"That would be one area when we part company with him," said Tom Prichard, an ally of Pawlenty and president of the conservative Minnesota Family Institute.
Pawlenty is a staunch opponent of abortion, earning him the loyalty of social conservative activists. In 2003, Pawlenty's support was instrumental in securing votes on legislation requiring women to wait 24 hours before an abortion, Prichard said.
The state Legislature will also take up a proposal to allow a referendum that would amend Minnesota's constitution to prohibit same-sex marriages. A similar bill was killed by the Democratic state Senate last year.
When he served in the state house, Pawlenty supported a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation -- a decision he later said he regretted. He was a strong supporter of last year's bill. Prichard said he hopes Pawlenty uses the influence of his office to persuade legislators to pass it.
That he has vast political capital is an open question to some. The Republicans lost 13 seats in the Minnesota House in the 2004 election, and some Republicans complain that Pawlenty did not effectively campaign for them.
Not so, says Ronald Eibensteiner, the Minnesota Republican Party chairman. He said the party was so focused on helping Bush win the state that it relegated state House races to a second-tier status. Democratic Sen. John Kerry ended up winning Minnesota.
Before he considers the White House, Pawlenty must get re-elected. His most likely Democratic opponent is state Attorney General Mike Hatch, and both Republicans and Democrats anticipate a tough race.
His biggest initial obstacle is his lack of a fund-raising base, according to state Republicans. But his popularity with free market conservatives nationally would be one avenue for him to exploit.