Tim Pawlenty Joins the 2012 Fray

Looks like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has finally bitten the bullet and has submitted papers to register a PAC—usually the first step in any presidential bid—thus ending the most predictable speculation in the 2012 race so far. Pawlenty will call his PAC Freedom First, continuing the GOP trend of corny freedom-themed PAC names. (Mitt Romney's is called Free and Strong America.) Over at Politico, J-Mart reports that Pawlenty has been quietly collecting high-profile campaign staff and supporters, including Vin Weber to co-chair his campaign. Weber, a former Minnesota congressman and a prominent GOP player, threw his weight behind Romney in 2008. Pawlenty has wrapped up a few other big names from the 2008 cycle, including RNC communications director Alex Conant and McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson, who will be big assets to his bid.

While anything could happen between now and the 2012 primaries (remember when Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were the presumptive 2008 nominees?), there's no harm in speculating, right? Pawlenty has a couple of disadvantages going in. He has lower national name recognition than three of his key rivals—Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. He hasn't run in a presidential election before, and many Republican strategists will tell you that the experience of having done it once is enormously advantageous. (Democrats, on the other hand, are far less supportive of repeat candidates.) He's also behind in the fundraising stakes, which is a big challenge when facing the likes of Palin and Romney, both of whom are fundraising powerhouses.

Pawlenty will likely to be fighting for Romney's turf. Both men are telegenic former governors (or at least Pawlenty will be—he's not running for a third term in 2010) who will likely focus their campaigns on the economy and their administrative prowess. Both men are socially conservative, but neither is likely to make that the centerpiece of their campaign. And both will fashion themselves Washington outsiders, as will most of the potential field.

On the upside, Pawlenty has significant good will within the GOP. His time at Minnesota's helm has been widely respected within the party, and has been relatively uncontroversial. He's considered a solid player, a reasonable man with good conservative credentials who is reportedly easy to get along with. No diva-ish behavior there. He was high on McCain's VP shortlist last year. In those considerations, his only real vice was that he wasn't showy enough. He was a good choice, but not a flashy, surprising game-changer. But if in 2012 the economy still feels shaky and voters feel uncertain about their future, that vice could prove to be his crowning virtue.