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.
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