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Minn.'s Pawlenty: A contender to reshape GOP's 2012 image

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He mentioned California, where voters could elect former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman as governor and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina as senator and give the GOP a new beachhead in the nation's most populous state. He pointed to the Southwest, where voters could elect Latino Republicans as governor in New Mexico (Susana Martinez) and Nevada (Brian Sandoval).

"There's going to be six or eight next-generation folks who are not middle-aged, white-guy CEOs," he said. "So it's going to be a new day, a new era in terms of the face and voice and tone of the Republican Party."

Pawlenty is, of course, one more white guy in the constellation of prospective GOP presidential candidates, with Palin the lone exception. But life story, he said, can help him overcome the advantages that his likely rivals may enjoy at the start of the race.

"What do people think about when they think about Republicans?" he asked. "What's the stereotype? We're all CEOs. We're the sons or daughters of CEOs. We play polo on the weekends. We never got our fingernails dirty. We drink Chablis and eat brie. That's not my story, and it's not the story for the tea party, and it's not the story for most Republicans."

And then he repeated the highlights of a biography that he has been taking to Republican gatherings in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere all year and that will be front-and-center next year should he become a candidate: He grew up in a meatpacking town. His mother died when he was 16. His father drove a truck for much of his life. He was the first in his family to graduate from college.

The voters that Republicans need to win in 2012, Pawlenty said, care less about seven-point plans for health-care reform. What they want is to know that those running for president understand their lives, their challenges, their values and their worries. To gain voters' trust, he added, candidates would need to connect with them at a gut and heart level.

"So when they say, 'You don't understand me, you're all country club elitists,' it helps to have a messenger that has walked in their shoes a bit because then you can at least open the door to a discussion and get you some credibility," he said.

Pawlenty is a retiring two-term governor of a generally Democratic state from a region of the country that is always at the center of deciding who becomes president. But he would start the race far down in GOP pack. He may be overlooked or ignored as bigger names draw the media's attention. He will face challenges in raising money to compete with those who have big purses.

Whether he can elbow his way into the thick of the competition is the question others in the party are now asking. Pawlenty says that when the time comes, there will be an audience there to listen.

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