Tim Pawlenty’s Republican opponents are hoping to make him the first casualty of the 2012 campaign, setting expectations that a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll next month would mean the end of his presidential aspirations. Pawlenty is fighting back hard, touting his toughness as governor in new Iowa ads that highlight his success in facing down government unions and his refusal to accept the tax and spending demands of Minnesota Democrats.

Pawlenty argues that the characteristics that made him a successful conservative governor of a blue state are the same ones that would make him a strong leader of the free world. When I asked Pawlenty recently to define his foreign policy philosophy, his answer could apply to foreign tyrants and big-spending Democrats alike: “You may have learned this in a bar, you may have learned it in a back alley, you may have learned it in business, but it’s always true: When you’re dealing with thugs and bullies, they only respect strength; they don’t respect weakness. So it is important that we project clarity and strength — and the vigilance to back it up,” Pawlenty says.

When it comes to Iran, Pawlenty has a strong, clear message to project: “We have to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” He adds that “not having access to the intelligence, it’s difficult to know precisely what form that [action] would take,” and he praises the work that has been done so far to sabotage the Iranian nuclear effort with a computer virus. But he rejects the notion that a nuclear Iran is inevitable or that our focus should be on how to “contain” a nuclear regime in Tehran. Would he back Israel if Israel took matters into its own hands? He answers without hesitating: “Of course.” But, Pawlenty quickly adds, it should never come to Israel acting alone. He notes that Israeli “Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu . . . recently indicated that there is only one military in the world that had the capacity to actually undertake a mission [to stop Iran from going nuclear] should it become necessary, and that’s the United States.”

On Libya, Pawlenty is concerned that President Obama’s failure to lead, and refusal to make Moammar Gaddafi’s removal a military objective, could have disastrous consequences. He points to Gaddafi’s bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and recent reports that Gaddafi has threatened retaliation against the West if the NATO bombing of Libya continues — and warns that if we don’t finish the job “it is likely that he would perpetrate terrorist acts against Europe or against the United States — and he’s already indicated he would. He is a killer. He has got to go.”

On Afghanistan, Pawlenty sees weakness in Obama’s announced drawdown. He is appalled that Obama rejected the military advice of the “most successful general in the modern history of the country” and notes that the president “said throughout his speech that we need to have a quote-unquote ‘responsible’ conclusion to the Afghan war. The standard for America’s goal in the world is not just ‘responsible.’ It is ‘successful’ and ‘victorious.’ ”

Pawlenty is also troubled by the apparent willingness of congressional Republicans to consider deep cuts in the defense budget as part of a debt-limit deal. Far from cutting defense, Pawlenty says, “we need to maintain and, in my view, increase the defense budget. We can reprioritize and achieve savings, but if those savings are realized, I think they should be repurposed back into defense.” Pawlenty says national defense is “the first responsibility of the United States federal government,” and the talk of defense cuts “calls into question how committed [some Republicans are] to trying to maintain America’s leadership role and presence around the world.. . . There is a good chunk of the Republican Party calling for retrenchment. I reject that.”

Some have suggested Pawlenty is carrying the McCain foreign policy mantle in this race. To the extent this suggests a robust approach to Iran, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, Pawlenty says, “I embrace that label.” But he points out that he and McCain have differences — especially when it comes to handling captured terrorists. “He supports closing down Guantanamo; I don’t. He’s against enhanced interrogation techniques; I’m in favor of them under limited and controlled circumstances,” Pawlenty tells me. As for trying captured terrorists, Pawlenty says that “the proper place for [an enemy combatant] to be processed and questioned and prosecuted is not our civilian courts.” That sounds a lot more like Dick Cheney than John McCain.

Pawlenty says that on foreign policy, the presidential race has exposed “two separate perspectives vying for a majority view within the conservative movement.” He says, “I feel strongly about my view. America has an exceptional role in the world. It’s a leadership role. It’s not always popular, and it’s not always easy, it’s not always inexpensive, but it’s strategically important.”

When it comes to national security, Pawlenty isn’t Minnesota nice — he’s a Minnesota hawk. But to carry his message for a strong American leadership in the world — and draw a contrast with front-runner Mitt Romney, who has flirted with retreat and withdrawal — Pawlenty first needs a strong showing in the Iowa straw poll one month from now.