By BRIAN BAKST
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - As a presidential hopeful, Tim Pawlenty won respect among GOP insiders, social conservatives and the tea party movement. Far from the first love of any faction, he quickly washed out as a candidate.
Almost a year after he abandoned his White House bid, Pawlenty's reputation as being suitable but not a standout is actually fueling the speculation that the former Minnesota governor is a serious contender in Republican Mitt Romney's search for a running mate.
Romney is keeping the process tightly under wraps. An announcement could come at any point between now and the Republican convention in late August. It's unclear who the Romney campaign is vetting, though Pawlenty's name comes up frequently in political circles as a prospect. Pawlenty himself isn't giving any clues even as Republicans debate the pros and cons of a Romney-Pawlenty ticket.
To hear these insiders tell it, the earnest Pawlenty might end up satisfying many Republicans without risking the unwelcome distractions that could result from a running mate who is flashier than the nominee, who has close ties to an unpopular past administration or whose background has largely avoided scrutiny.
"He's not a Sarah Palin. He's a Joe Biden type of pick," said Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, describing Pawlenty as "appealing and acceptable to all branches of the conservative base and the Republican Party as a whole."
Pawlenty, an evangelical, also could help quell any lingering unease about Romney's Mormonism among some conservatives. As the self-made son of a truck driver, his life story could relate more to middle-class voters than that of Romney, the wealthy businessman and son of a former governor.
Campaigning last week for Romney in blue-collar Pittsburgh, Pawlenty weaved a mention of his 1970s boyhood in a struggling meatpacking town to convey his grasp of economic woes on a more personal level.
"I saw the face of unemployment and dislocation from the economy and the effects that has on moms and dads and people and families, neighborhood and community," Pawlenty said in a hushed tone. "I saw it at a real young age, up close and real personal."
During his eight years leading Minnesota, Pawlenty restricted abortions and expanded gun rights. He also stocked his state's judiciary with conservative judges and made frequent use of vetoes and executive budget-cutting powers to curb spending.
His biggest blemish was rather tame - a tobacco surcharge that he insisted be labeled a fee, not a tax. The decision triggered a semantic dispute mirroring the fight over whether President Barack Obama's health insurance mandate is a penalty or a tax.
What Pawlenty lacks is the star power to give Romney's ticket a boost among any key constituency or critical voting bloc. He would also be hard-pressed to swing Minnesota to Republicans for the first time since 1972 - before Pawlenty, 51, was even old enough to vote. His two statewide victories came in races in which he benefited from multiple candidates dividing the vote on the left.
With the presidential race so tight, some GOP leaders want Romney to opt for solid over spectacular, someone who is tested rather than intriguingly new to the national scene.
"He's better prepared than any of these other folks being talked about a lot, in terms of the intellectual and physical rigor of a campaign and the kind of grilling you're going to face," said Bill Lacy, who advised Republican Bob Dole during his presidential campaigns.
When Republicans began lining up last year to challenge Obama, Pawlenty was regarded as a threat to Romney, the presumed front-runner. Pawlenty landed top campaign talent and boasted of his achievements as a Republican who was twice elected to lead a Democratic-leaning state. But he struggled to excite voters and finished a disappointing third in a summer 2011 test vote in Iowa, leading him to quit the race.
Pawlenty soon embraced an industrious role as a go-anywhere, get-tough surrogate for Romney - precisely the tasks often assigned to running mates. Last week he was on a bus in Ohio and Pennsylvania, attacking Obama's record before the president's own bus pulled in for campaign rallies. Before that, he was Romney's emissary to out-of-the-way Republican conventions in California, Michigan, Oklahoma and other spots. And he's scooped ice cream by Ann Romney's side after serving warm-up duties for her husband in New Hampshire.
Campaigning for someone else, Pawlenty has been far more relaxed than when he was on his own. Back then, he tended to come off as bland and rehearsed - especially when stacked against candidates with more flair, such as fellow Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann.
Like other vice presidential contenders, Pawlenty sidesteps questions about his interest in the No. 2 post. He initially asked to be removed from parlor-game shortlists. Now he says it's an honor to be mentioned, while insisting he's content to help Romney in other ways.
"I am enjoying my time in the private sector and view my role in this presidential campaign as being a key volunteer," Pawlenty told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "So, anything beyond that would be an unexpected development."
Part of the hesitancy stems from 2008, when Pawlenty was a runner-up to Palin as John McCain's vice presidential choice. In his memoir last year, Pawlenty recalled marveling about the fact that he was even being vetted. He said it proved that life was "unpredictable" and "filled with possibilities," and he comically described scurrying to pull together the paper trail covering intimate financial and personal details.
As time wore on, Pawlenty concluded he wouldn't be chosen. He suspected McCain would go with Romney, whose own presidential campaign came up short that year. "I actually talked to Mitt about that at some point later on, and he said he thought it was going to be me," Pawlenty wrote.
This time, friends say, Pawlenty seems content to let the process play out around him rather than sweat over it. Meanwhile, he's charted a lucrative course by joining half a dozen corporate boards. As a director at a software company, for instance, he'll pull down $200,000 in salary and restricted stock shares this year. The other companies include medical technology and natural gas exploration firms; they are privately held and don't report their compensation packages.
Investor Ron Eibensteiner, a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman who serves alongside Pawlenty on a startup company board, said that while Pawlenty is acclimating well to corporate culture, the tug of politics remains naturally strong.
"I would imagine that he is very focused on making a little bit of money because he really doesn't have a lot," Eibensteiner said. "But if a good (political) opportunity arose, would he consider it? Absolutely. He'd be a fool not to."
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