Tim Pawlenty is announcing today the formation of his exploratory committee. That is no surprise. What is eyebrow-raising is the degree to which he has shown the ability to run a disciplined campaign and raise his visibility without incurring any serious knocks. He has diligently been where he has to be — CPAC, Iowa, New Hampshire — to introduce himself. He’s made no gaffes and has shown himself to be unusually adept on foreign policy for a governor. And he hasn’t alienated any key group in the GOP (e.g. hawks, social conservatives). The doubts about Pawlenty’s charisma will need to be answered, but he has left audiences generally impressed, be it the national media at the National Press Club or the Republican Christian conservatives in Iowa. His speaking abilities have sharpened, with obvious attention being paid to explain that “nice” doesn’t mean “wimp.”

Pawlenty’s goal is no be the “not Mitt Romney” candidate whom the base can rally around. Those who will never forgive Romney for RomneyCare (a majority of the primary electorate, I suspect) will look for an alternative. And he could well be that candidate.

His road is made easier by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s serial gaffes and initial embrace of a conservative brand of isolationism. And meanwhile, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s wife is hinting that there’s no sign Daniels is ready to take the plunge. As the Indianapolis Star reports:

In an interview this past week, Indiana’s first lady told The Indianapolis Star that she hasn’t taken a stance for or against a presidential run by her husband.

“At this point, I guess I’m still thinking it’s awfully early to have any real strong opinion about it,” Cheri Daniels said. “But I think it’s obviously a great honor to have people even talking about you for that position. Again, we just have an awful lot to think about.”

Still, she said the impact on the Daniels family would “definitely be a reason” if the governor decides not to run.

“It would not be the sole reason,” she added. “I mean, there’s so many things to consider that I think most people don’t even think about.”

That doesn’t sound like an eager candidate’s wife talking.

As Barbour and Daniels hobble or take themselves out of the race, the question becomes whether Pawlenty can consolidate support for those looking for a solid conservative with no obvious flaws. Attention will now increase on Pawlenty and we’ll soon find out whether, in part because of weak and dwindling opposition, Pawlenty can find his way to the front of the pack.