After months of playing nice Bachmann and fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty have started criticizing each other, reflecting the importance of the next few weeks of campaigning leading to the Iowa Straw poll. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann are staying true to type in a spat between their presidential campaigns: He offers a cautious slap over her lack of executive experience, and she smacks back with dramatic comparisons between him and President Obama.

This is more or less how it has always been for the two Republican lawmakers from Minnesota, where Bachmann’s passion and conviction outshone Pawlenty’s more cautious, methodical ways from the moment she stormed the state legislature nearly a decade ago.

Then, as now, Pawlenty said he was conservative, yet Bachmann seemed to say it more loudly. He talked about his faith, and she talked about hers more. He said he was a true believer, but Bachmann was somehow more believable.

“Michele is very passionate, very much a go-getter, and Tim in his own way has charisma as well on a personal level,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. “But I think he just conveys it differently than Michele does in terms of his passion and concern on the issues. It’s just different.”

That dynamic is playing out at a critical moment on the trail, where, despite years of preparation within national GOP circles, Pawlenty is struggling to take hold. Meanwhile, Bachmann in a month of campaigning has rocketed past all her competitors, save front-runner Mitt Romney.

Bachmann and Pawlenty’s trajectories are set to collide during next month’s Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, an early test of strength in a critical state. With Romney sitting out the event, the straw poll is largely turning into a question of which Minnesotan Iowans prefer.

Pawlenty’s challenge is winning the kind of passionate support that comes so naturally to Bachmann, particularly among an electorate more apt to respond to tea party calls to action than establishment support.

It has been difficult for him on the stump, where he continues to lag in all public polls. Back in Minnesota, he won two terms as governor without gaining 50 percent of the vote, and even in his home town, voters struggled to feel a connection.

Republicans are not so easy to find in South St. Paul, the blue-collar town where Pawlenty grew up. But even among a group of beer-sipping conservatives in the basement of the old Croatian Hall, opinion is mixed about the former governor.

“Between Bachmann and Pawlenty, I would definitely take Bachmann,” said retired painter Jim Kammerer, 64. “I think he’s gone more to the right since he’s been on the presidential campaign, but he’s not convincing to me.”

Part-time cook Brian Williams, 49, saw more of what the Pawlenty campaign hopes voters will see. “People have said, ‘You know, he’s weak.’ What is he weak on? He held the state together, didn’t raise any taxes. I like him.”

The tiff between Pawlenty and Bachmann began over the weekend, when Pawlenty — gently — criticized Bachmann.

“These are really serious times, and there hasn’t been somebody who went from the U.S. House of Representatives to the presidency, I think, in over 100 years, and there’s a reason for that,” Pawlenty told CNN’s Candy Crowley.

It wasn’t the first time he had softly swiped his opponent. But this time, Bachmann fired back.

“Governor Pawlenty said in 2006, ‘The era of small government is over. . . .The government has to be more proactive and more aggressive.’ ” Bachmann said in a rebuttal statement. “That’s the same philosophy that, under President Obama, has brought us record deficits, massive unemployment and an unconstitutional health-care plan.”

Pawlenty ramped up the criticism, noting Monday in Davenport, Iowa, that he and Bachmann “have fought the same fights. But she hasn’t won. I have.”

Bachmann’s team retorted in a statement: “There is very little difference between Governor Pawlenty’s past positions and Barack Obama’s positions on several critical issues facing Americans.”

Contrasting images

Bachmann, 55, ran for the legislature in 2000 largely to lead conservatives’ opposition to new Minnesota education standards. She advocated a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and led support of a taxpayer bill of rights to limit government growth.

As a lawmaker and then governor, Pawlenty, 50, supported the same initiatives. Many of the state’s conservative leaders consider him an ally.

But Bachmann, not Pawlenty, made a name for herself championing these issues. When she walked onto the state political stage in 2000 wearing jeans and a sweatshirt at a GOP convention after beating a 28-year incumbent, she shocked the political establishment. Since then, no one, not even her detractors, has doubted her authenticity.

“Make no mistake about Michele Bachmann,” said Roger Moe, a former Democratic lawmaker who lost the 2002 gubernatorial election to Pawlenty. “She believes it and voted it and lives it. That’s it.”

Bachmann was unafraid to take on Pawlenty directly, as she did during his first year as governor by challenging his proposal to spur economic growth by establishing tax-free zones. Much like her leadership style today, however, Bachmann didn’t do it by creating legislative coalitions or working within the system; she did it by giving fiery speeches to outside groups, including evangelical Christians and anti-tax advocates.

Pawlenty, in contrast, built his career by forging deals and relationships within the system. As the state House’s majority leader, he was among the few elected Republicans who urged calm among party members who were upset that Bachmann had defeated the GOP incumbent. He also took positions that have since evolved.

In the legislature, for instance, Pawlenty voted at least once to enact education standards called the Profile of Learning. Later, as governor, he took credit for helping repeal the standards, which he then called “a piece of junk.”

As a lawmaker, Pawlenty voted for a gay rights amendment and for carbon restrictions to combat climate change. As governor, he agreed with Democrats to increase a cigarette fee to balance Minnesota’s budget.

But Pawlenty also pushed through tort reform, abortion restrictions and legislation that eased the purchase of handguns. He won a face-off with public unions and bested Democrats in a state budget standoff. He also assembled backing from an impressive list of national Republican leaders.

“I think he’s a conservative, I really do,” said Tony Sutton, chairman of the state GOP, who, like many Republicans in Minnesota, is publicly neutral on the presidential race. “But in order to enact a conservative philosophy, you have to win elections. And that can be a strength, because he’ll make the right decision to win an election.”