It was Tim Pawlenty’s moment of truth. Actually, several moments of truth.

“We’re going to have to look the American people in the eye and tell them the truth, and that’s what I’ll be talking about,” the former Minnesota governor proclaimed to Erica Hill on CBS’s “Early Show” on Monday as he formally began his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.

“President Obama unfortunately doesn’t have the courage to look the American people in the eye and tell them the tough truth,” Pawlenty informed Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” show. “I’ll do that.”

In a phone interview with Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey, he promised “a serious, tell-the-truth, courageous message.”

And in Des Moines, Pawlenty delivered an announcement speech, “A Time for Truth,” that contained 16 instances of the word “truth” in the prepared text.

But just an hour after unburdening himself of these truths in Iowa, the candidate went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and told a bit of a fib.

The talk-show host, who serves as the unofficial gatekeeper to the Republican nomination, presented Pawlenty with a 2006 newspaper article in which he said that “the era of small government is over” and that “government has to be more proactive, more aggressive.”

The truth-teller beat a hasty retreat. He claimed that he had merely been referencing somebody else’s words — “I didn’t say those words myself” — that his political opponents had “pushed that falsely,” and that the newspaper was motivated by political bias and was forced to issue a correction.

To verify Pawlenty’s truthfulness, I looked up the article, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and discovered that Pawlenty had taken some liberties with the facts.

The article is all about Pawlenty’s efforts as governor to take on drug and oil companies and other practitioners of “excessive corporate power.” It includes his boast that many ideological Republicans “don’t even talk to me anymore” because of his support for things such as the minimum wage.

“The era of small government is over,” Pawlenty told the newspaper. “I’m a market person, but there are certain circumstances where you’ve got to have government put up the guardrails or bust up entrenched interests before they become too powerful. . . . Government has to be more proactive, more aggressive.”

The newspaper did issue a “clarification,” but only to say that Pawlenty’s quote about small government was “in reference to a point” made by the conservative writer David Brooks — one that Pawlenty, from his other comments, obviously agreed with.

For Pawlenty, truth-telling is an attractive theme, particularly now that he hopes to earn the support of conservative intellectuals who had been hoping for a Mitch Daniels candidacy. And, on his first day as truth-teller, he did offer up some straight talk. He took the brave position of telling the crowd in Des Moines that he would like to do away with ethanol subsidies, and he promised to tell Floridians that he wants to raise the Social Security retirement age.

But in the Republican primary race, the real risk comes from speaking truth to party orthodoxy, as when Newt Gingrich took issue with House Republicans’ plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. And Pawlenty, who as governor offended ideologues — particularly with his support of a national cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases — now wouldn’t think of it. After all, the same ideologues that he boasted about offending in 2006 now control the nominating process.

The 2006 article, which came out in the heat of Pawlenty’s gubernatorial reelection battle, mentioned that he supported a ban on prescription-drug advertising and fought for reimporting price-regulated drugs from Canada. Pawlenty argued that “government has to step in” to prevent oil companies from “suppressing the development of alternative fuels.” The article called him a “latter-day trust buster, a reformer who is unafraid to challenge big business and wield government power.”

Limbaugh told Pawlenty that his quotes about small government and “aggressive government” sounded like those of “inside-the-Beltway Republicans” who “believe in an active, powerful executive, of an engaging government that’s big enough to handle the requests and demands of the people.”

Pawlenty did indeed have such a message in 2006, when he was asking Minnesotans to give him a second term. But he surrendered immediately when Limbaugh challenged him. “That incorrect quote has haunted me, and I’m glad I had a chance in this big national forum on your great show to clarify,” he explained.

In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, some truths are just too hard to tell.