By BRIAN BAKST
The Associated Press
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 1:34 PM
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann spent the past decade mostly staying out of each other's way, two Minnesotans taking very different paths on the rise to national Republican Party prominence from a state better known for its Democratic icons.
Their shared flirtation with presidential politics won't allow that much longer.
Though each appeals to different segments of their party and they are far from alone in the 2012 mix, some doubt a same-state duo can stay viable very long. And it is a recipe for division among Minnesota Republicans left to pick sides, meaning delay for either Pawlenty or Bachmann nailing down critical support back home.
"The comparisons are going to be inevitable," said Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa Republican Party executive director. "If one of them is consistently pegging higher in polling as we get into this caucus process, I think it's a red mark that is going to be hard to overcome."
Attention to the two possible candidacies is growing as Pawlenty and Bachmann visit states with early contests in the election calendar and make other moves seen as campaign preparations.
Pawlenty, the former two-term governor, took a traditional route to the race starting line. He governed as a fiscal hawk with a reliably conservative record on abortion, gun laws and other social causes. He methodically traveled to Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere to give speeches and launched a political action committee to spread political money to potential allies. And he published a campaign-ready memoir just as he left office.
Bachmann, a third-term congresswoman, is a provocateur whose White House ambitions seemed to crop up suddenly. She caught the tea party updraft, proved a mighty fundraiser and built a following with unvarnished commentary on cable news shows. Last month, she delivered her own nationally televised response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address - a production that was spoofed days later by "Saturday Night Live" and showed an attention-getting ability starting to rival conservative contemporary Sarah Palin.
Pawlenty and Bachmann are already appearing at the same events and meeting with the same activists who can make or break a White House campaign.
If both formally enter the race, they'll dive instantly into a competition for dollars and supporters, including on their home turf where Minnesota contributors have largely fueled their past campaigns. It would put home-state Republicans in a bind, leaving an impression of tepid enthusiasm or even division among the GOP voters who know the Minnesota hopefuls the best.
Before Bachmann entered the 2012 picture, former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman called Pawlenty someone who would make "a great president," and told one audience he'd sleep better if Pawlenty were in charge.
Last week Coleman soft-pedaled when asked by an ABC interviewer about a race featuring both Pawlenty and Bachmann.
"I have got a lot of friends out there, I always stick with my friends," he said. Coleman was traveling out of the country this week and unavailable for additional comment.
Some Republicans, like Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline, have lent Pawlenty a hand. Others are hanging back for now. Minnesota House Majority Leader Matt Dean, whose legislative district overlaps Bachmann's congressional district, said that having both Pawlenty and Bachmann in the same race poses a "very interesting dynamic."
Later this week, Bachmann and Pawlenty test their messages in appearances at the important Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington, which ends with a straw poll.
Both are coming off recent trips to Iowa, with Pawlenty inaugurating a social conservative group's lecture series featuring potential candidates. Bachmann is on the group's docket this spring.
Pawlenty has said a strong Iowa showing would be vital to his overall chances and has been working to build a coalition of values and pocketbook voters. His courtship of evangelical voters is hard to miss, from meetings with pastors in Iowa to the faith-heavy biography he just released. Bachmann already commands respect in those circles, partly through her aggressive push for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
While she climbed the Minnesota ranks on her social issue stances, Bachmann has focused on fiscal issues in Washington and in her presidential dabbling.
Bachmann has lined up more trips to Iowa as well as a mid-February stop in another early voting state, South Carolina.
Neither Bachmann nor Pawlenty are talking much about the other, and associates dismiss talk of a rivalry.
Consider Pawlenty's polite take on Bachmann recently in New Hampshire while on his book tour:
"I've got a cordial, good relationship with her. Obviously, she's risen as one of the leaders of the tea party nationally. If she chose to run for president, I think she would be a strong candidate."
Bachmann maintains she simply wants to be "part of the conversation" and isn't saying how soon she'll decide her next step.
Pawlenty and Bachmann didn't work closely together during their four-year overlap at the Minnesota Capitol. As a state senator, Bachmann was outside the leadership circle. Pawlenty signed seven of her bills into law, and she stood with his agenda most of the time. Pawlenty donated to Bachmann's re-election campaign through his political action committee, just as he did for Republicans in Minnesota's other congressional races.
But they often passed like ships in the night at Republican rallies and conventions.
Former Minnesota Republican Party chairman Ron Carey said he never sensed a close connection between the two. "They've never been natural political allies," he said.
Carey, who served as Bachmann's chief of staff, said he worries about a split among conservatives that would let a moderate grab the GOP mantle. Carey resigned from Bachmann's staff last July after five months on the job; he said he has no plans to back Bachmann for president.
"While she passes the conservative test, my opinion from my association with her is she's not going to be an electable candidate for us," he said. "And even if she were elected I don't believe she would be ready for the position of the president of the United States."
Yet Bachmann brings a charisma that Pawlenty does not, and she can count on a potent bloc of support in the tea party movement.
"If you had a roomful of tea party people and they had to choose between Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann that question would be pretty clear that they would pick Michele Bachmann - today at least," said Neal Breitbarth, a Minnesota delegate to three national GOP conventions who has been involved in the tea party.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report from Concord, N.H.