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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