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Can Tim Pawlenty light a fire with Republicans?

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks in Blaine, Minn.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks in Blaine, Minn. (Craig Lassig - AP)
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He described the trauma he felt around him in the solidly Democratic town of South St. Paul in 1969, when the biggest meatpacking plant went away and took the jobs with it.

"Even at the age of nine," he wrote, "I felt this palpable sense that the bottom was dropping out of everything."

Pawlenty also wrote at length about his faith - his drift from Catholicism to his wife's evangelical church - and sprinkled the book liberally with passages from the Bible.

That could give him an edge in Iowa, a neighboring state where religious voters have traditionally dominated the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

While Pawlenty is a staunch social conservative, he is also a sunny one. Voters will sense that he "isn't someone who is going to wake up every morning trying to figure out who to condemn," said one evangelical leader, who didn't want to be quoted by name because he is advising a number of possible presidential contenders.

Sharing the spotlight

But as has happened so often in his career, Pawlenty's prospects will probably be defined by who else decides to get into the race: Will Huckabee rally the evangelical vote, as he did in 2008? Will another fiscally conservative midwestern governor - Indiana's Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. is getting a lot of buzz lately - jump in? If the debate stage is crowded by such oversize personalities as Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, will he make much of an impression?

If lightning does strike in Iowa, Pawlenty is trying to ensure that he doesn't make the same mistake Huckabee did in 2008. He has been more active than any other potential candidate - with the possible exception of presumed front-runner Mitt Romney - in building a ground-level organization across the map.

His work as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association had him traveling the country corralling big donors for the past year, giving him a network that will no doubt come in handy. His political action committee raised $2 million last year, which put him fourth behind Romney, Palin and Huckabee.

But his real strength, Pawlenty insisted, is his ability to connect with the daily struggles of the people he calls "Sam's Club Republicans."

Can bland be beautiful?

"After what we've been through," Pawlenty said, "I don't think the country's going to be putting the highest value on who's got the biggest entertainment act."

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