Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said Thursday that, as president, he would sign a highly contentious Republican plan to overhaul Medicare — but only if no other proposals made it out of Congress.

Pawlenty, who officially kicked off his presidential campaign on Monday and has been touring the nation with stops in Iowa, Florida, Washington and New Hampshire, went further than he has in previous appearances in which he has praised the “courage” and “leadership” of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the author of the Medicare proposal. But he stopped short of supporting the details of the plan.

“If that was the only bill that came to my desk, and I wasn’t able to pass my own plan, I would sign it,” Pawlenty said Thursday. Speaking to reporters during a visit to Cirtronics, a small New Hampshire electronics firm, he said: “I’ll have my own plan, which will have some similarities to the Medicare plan of congressman Ryan. But it will have some differences, as well. It will be out shortly. We just have some other ideas that we think we can add to it that would make the package even better.”

Pawlenty’s remarks echoed the view of several Republican senators who have described the Ryan budget as a good starting point but not necessarily the ideal final plan.

Ryan’s proposal, which would scale back and privatize the health-care entitlement program for the elderly, is not popular among voters. But pressure from tea-party-influenced elements of the GOP have kept the plan, which passed the House earlier this year, in play among Senate Republicans despite some misgivings.

But even with Pawlenty’s careful wording, he is the first presidential contender to offer even a qualified commitment to supporting Ryan’s proposal since Newt Gingrich sharply criticized it — before later describing it as a great first step.

Medicare has become one of the largest contributors to the nation’s precarious financial state. The program, which provides health insurance to 47 million elderly and disabled Americans, is an enormously popular entitlement, but the part of it that pays hospital bills is forecast to run short of money within 13 years.

The Ryan plan would transform Medicare from a public insurance system that guarantees specific benefits, no matter the cost, into a program that would give beneficiaries subsidies to buy private health plans. The idea is known as “premium support,” because it would help pay for insurance premiums, and it would begin for people who turn 65 in 2022.

Pawlenty’s remarks come with some risk, given the Democratic victory in a special election Tuesday in Upstate New York. Republicans and Democrats agree that the win was partly influenced by public alarm at the Medicare proposal.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, responded to Pawlenty’s remarks in a statement:

“Just two days after the people of New York’s solidly Republican 26th Congressional District roundly rejected the Republican plan for ending Medicare, Governor Pawlenty said that he would sign such a plan into law – a plan even Newt Gingrich called ‘radical.’ ”