WASHINGTON — Where does Tim Pawlenty fit in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?
The former Minnesota governor is seen as the early favorite to win Iowa's 2012 Republican caucus, traditionally the first true test of a White House aspirant's strength.
But as he outlined his views in a Des Moines speech Monday to kick off his presidential campaign, he faced a formidable question: While his down-home, low-key, Midwestern get-it-done style is appealing to Iowans, will it play well anywhere else?
"People are really looking for an aggressive candidate, and Pawlenty sometimes shies away from being really aggressive," said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief and founder of the Iowa Republican.com website, who attended Monday's event. "He's going to have to find the right tone."
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Pawlenty "would be the consensus second choice, but that's not how you get nominated," said Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Of course, so far this year, the party has a lot of second choices."
Some declined to run, including Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who announced his decision Sunday. Also sitting it out are 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and celebrity businessman Donald Trump.
What Republicans long for is a candidate with three qualities, said Steve Scheffler, Iowa GOP national committeeman, who hasn't endorsed anyone.
"They have to agree with voters on issues, be able to defeat (President) Barack Obama and push back" against the liberal agenda, said Scheffler, who's also president of the conservative Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Analysts believe that GOP voters will fall into two broad blocs — social conservatives who regard moral issues as paramount, and more traditional Republicans who want smaller government, falling national debt and free-market economics.
With Huckabee out, the social conservatives are up for grabs. They're being wooed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and businessman Herman Cain. None is considered a front-runner.
The mainstream GOP crowd also has no clear front-runner. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads most polls, but usually with less than 20 percent, and that's often buoyed by support from independents who won't count in many GOP primaries. He continues to be dogged by his parentage while governor of the Massachusetts health care law cited as a model for the national 2010 health care overhaul that most Republicans abhor.
Pawlenty's other major challenger so far, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has stumbled badly after suggesting that the House of Representatives' GOP plan to revamp Medicare, popular with Republicans, was "right-wing social engineering."
Still, Gingrich can't be ruled out, said Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. Gingrich stopped last week in Cedar Rapids, where Hagle watched him draw a large crowd and found "he had a lot of goodwill."
Romney, who finished a distant second there in 2008 after an energetic effort, plans to visit the state Friday — his first appearance in Iowa this year — and seems to be making only a token effort there. He's banking on New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first primary, to push him to the lead.
Also still in the mix is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose appeal resembles Romney's and who's putting his campaign headquarters in Florida, a signal that his strategy may be to wait until the competition reaches the big states to make his play.
Pawlenty tried Monday to appeal to both blocs in a hard-hitting speech in Des Moines. He said that when he visits Florida on Tuesday, he'll tell "both young people and seniors the truth that our entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path and that inaction is no longer an option."
He's sympathetic to subjecting Social Security to "means-testing," meaning wealthier seniors may not get full benefits, and urged that Medicare be changed to reward efficient doctors and consumers.
Pawlenty also stressed his resume, one that analysts say has unusual appeal to Iowans. He recalled that his mother passed away when he was 16 and "a while later, my dad lost his job for a time." He worked at a grocery store for about seven years and "was proud to earn some money to help pay for school costs and make ends meet." As Minnesota's governor, elected in 2002 and 2006, he said he led "a liberal state in a conservative direction."
Perhaps just as important, Pawlenty conveys a low-key appeal.
Friday he visited Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin, a city of 1,900 in eastern Iowa. He arrived early, sat in the audience listening to others, gave a speech in the school cafeteria, then stayed to eat ice cream and cake.
"He was willing to hang around and talk after a long day. That's the kind of thing Iowans appreciate," said Hagle.
But that style is hard to sell in big states, another reason why analysts say the race remains wide open. As Michael Needham, chief executive officer of the conservative Heritage Action for America, put it, "It's a fluid field."
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