During a recent weekend in North Carolina, Tim Pawlenty did what he has been doing over the past year for Mitt Romney: He drove himself non-stop.

In one town, he discussed the economy and jobs with a group of parents at an ice rink. Before the event ended, the former high school junior varsity hockey player had taken to the ice to give children a few skating tips. Soon, he was off again. He helped to open a Republican office in Raleigh, turning fiery, using the occasion to hammer President Obama and show off his combative skills: “I’m tired of hearing his teleprompter speeches and no results. . . . Those words, they don’t put gas in our cars, do they?”

By the start of the following week, he was off to deliver more speeches in Ohio and open another campaign office. The rigors of Pawlenty’s schedule have made him the hardest-working Romney surrogate among all the vice presidential hopefuls, a fact that buoys his boosters, who read it as a sign that devotion will be rewarded. But no one knows better than Pawlenty that a long slog in politics guarantees nothing. Four years ago, while serving as Minnesota governor, Pawlenty toiled hard and long on behalf of Sen. John McCain, only to be passed over in favor of an alluring newcomer who had not stumped for the candidate at all.

“Tim’s disappointment was obvious,” said Phil Krinkie, a former Minnesota state House colleague who greeted Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, on the floor of the Republican National Convention, held by chance in St. Paul. “He’d had a deep yearning to be on the ticket. He was devastated, truly devastated. It was on his face. We had a handshake, a few words, you could feel it, the pain.”

Just the same, Krinkie became enamored of Sarah Palin. “People were swept up by it – this new face, her bravado, the excitement she brought instead of another white middle-class male,” he recalled. “I’d have liked to have seen Tim get it, but I was always a little bit of a skeptic about Tim’s chances. . . . I’m still a little skeptical this time, too.”

So are many others. Among Republicans looking for pizazz from the pick, Pawlenty’s name receives scant mention. Jeb Bush gets tongues wagging by endorsing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pauses one day from his own surrogate chores to say he favors Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — a notion joined on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the Weekly Standard.

The stakes this year are greater for Pawlenty than anyone else on the short list – Ryan, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, or, perhaps, Jindal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. Unlike the others, Pawlenty’s political career has stalled. Following two terms as governor, Pawlenty is out of office – with no real public profile, no notable causes, no great flock of followers, nothing but his demonstrated zeal as a surrogate, and his eagerness to prove his mettle.

‘He has done everything right’

Pawlenty has labored earnestly to look like a suitably deferential number two, friends say privately — all the more impressive, they add, given how swiftly he had to recover from the disappointment of not being the number one. After his failed presidential run, best remembered for its lack of passion and a disastrous showing in the Iowa straw poll, Pawlenty quickly enlisted with the Romney forces to do what, politically, he has always done so well: trumpet the candidacies of others.

“He has given Governor Romney everything that could be asked for from somebody in Tim’s position,” says Rich Killion, who helped lead Pawlenty’s campaign in New Hampshire. “I think he would be a great pick. He has done everything right.”

But he did everything right the last time, too. Pawlenty, who devotes 10 pages of his autobiography to the 2008 vice presidential selection process, never has acknowledged being hurt. He always has projected sunniness and a slightly sardonic air in talking and writing about it. Immediately after getting off the phone with McCain, he took his dog for a walk alone. The Secret Service and millions of TV viewers would soon train their eyes on Palin. Pawlenty carried a little bag with him to clean up after his dog, he writes. “As I put the little bag over my hand and bent down to pick up her poop, I thought to myself, Well, this is the only number two I’ll be picking up today.”

That morning, he attended the Minnesota State Fair and did his weekly Minnesota radio show, during which he told listeners that he was not the vice presidential pick. Then, with McCain still a couple of hours away from anointing Palin, Pawlenty went to deliver a scheduled speech to a conservative conference of about 200 activists, a group with doubts about the depth of McCain’s conservatism. The spectators included Gary Marx, the executive director of the Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“He could have been wallowing over not having been picked,” Marx said. “Instead, he was a loyal soldier, praising McCain to a conservative audience that was pessimistic about the election and suspicious of McCain. I might not have done the event in his shoes, might have been crying my eyes out. I thought it showed a quality of character you don’t see a lot . . . because it had to hurt.”

But Pawlenty is nothing if not tenacious. His rise in Minnesota, which began as a college student when he volunteered at the campaign office of a Senate aspirant, was a function of his doggedness amid painful rebuffs from party chieftains.

Pawlenty’s career was impeded several times by the Republican establishment, rejections always premised on the belief that other politicians had greater name popularity, more magnetism, better financing and superior organizations. As the 2002 elections approached, Vice President Richard B. Cheney telephoned Pawlenty, then the Minnesota state House majority leader, to persuade him not to run for the Senate, so that Norm Coleman, the St. Paul mayor, could have a clear path to the seat. Pawlenty ran for governor instead and won, despite opposition from some prominent state Republicans.

“When he stepped aside for Norm Coleman, there were many people who felt he was too quickly succumbing to this outsider,” said Krinkie, who now is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. “But over time, Tim has come to be regarded as a loyalist, a team player.”

‘Maybe for once he gets lucky’

In contrast to his rivals, Pawlenty conducts himself nowadays like the most feverish of job applicants. While the others have largely tended to their day jobs in which they benefit from built-in news coverage and audiences, Pawlenty has headlined dinners and campaign fundraisers in venues big and small. He has ridden the campaign bus wherever and whenever Romney needs him, exhorted workers at small campaign offices and appeared on every TV show asked — he will be on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Friends of Romney speak admiringly about the easy friendship and tightening bond between the nominee and his steadfast surrogate. Nonetheless, as the days tick down toward the pick, they wonder aloud: How much, if at all, does loyalty win the quiet respect of independents or excite the fevered Republican base?

Marx, still captivated by the memory of Pawlenty’s poise and generosity four years ago, says a Romney-Pawlenty ticket would be “a home run.” But, he quickly adds, he would be equally pleased with the selection of Portman, who, he adds, “has foreign policy expertise in spades, more perhaps than Pawlenty, plus Portman also helps bring perhaps Ohio into the fold for Romney. Portman would be good.”

In Iowa, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, one of Pawlenty’s earliest presidential supporters, says he is “high” on Rubio or Jindal. His faint praise of Pawlenty reflects the tempered assessments of most in the Republican establishment – Pawlenty supporters and detractors alike. “I think Pawlenty has a great opportunity if Romney wants a vanilla pick who will do no harm and keep Romney in the forefront,” Feenstra said.

Feenstra’s interest in a President Pawlenty waned dramatically a year ago, when Pawlenty, during a televised New Hampshire debate, dodged a question inviting him to repeat his criticism of Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan. Watching the moment, a stunned Feenstra thought Pawlenty’s campaign would never recover from his display of timidity. And it didn’t, he observed.

But, if Pawlenty wins the nod from Romney, the very restraint that proved fatal to his presidential prospects probably will have been his salvation in the vice presidential sweepstakes. “He wouldn’t be in this position if he had gone after Romney,” Feenstra said. “He hasn’t had to take anything back.” Feenstra laughed and added, “Maybe for once he gets lucky.”

Meanwhile, Pawlenty keeps slogging the miles — and waits.

“I don’t want to see him left at the altar again,” Krinkie said. “That’d be hard twice for anybody, especially with where Tim is right now.”