Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty will spring a secret weapon on the 2012 presidential campaign trail in Iowa this week: his wife, Mary.

By most accounts, he needs one. Pawlenty will spend much of the next two weeks criss-crossing Iowa in a pull-out-all-the-stops effort to improve his lackluster standing in most recent polls of the Republican presidential field. His goal: a strong showing at next month’s closely watched Ames Straw Poll, a key test of organizational strength six months ahead of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

In stump speeches, Pawlenty almost always mentions his wife, whom he met in law school and who grew up in an affluent Minneapolis suburb. She is the youngest of five daughters so widely spaced that her mother was pregnant with her at the same time her oldest sister was expecting her first child.

Usually, Pawlenty explains away his wife’s absence on the campaign trail with this quip about her parenting obligations back home in Eagan, Minn.: “I have two teenage daughters. One is 18 and one is 14. They both like boys and one of them drives.”

The line always draws a laugh, and Pawlenty always follows up with a promise to bring Mary along next time.

“She’s going to be campaigning with me in Iowa soon,” Pawlenty said to an approving crowd of about 50 voters in Waterloo recently. “I hope you have a chance to meet her; we’ve been married 23 years.”

“Soon” has become “now” for Mary Pawlenty, who has taken on a decidedly more prominent role in her husband’s campaign in recent days. Not only will she accompany him for the first half of a weeklong swing through Iowa beginning Monday, but she is featured prominently in a new video that debuted last week and focuses on the Pawlentys’ faith.

In the video, Mary Pawlenty, who is 50, the same age as her husband, showcases her potential appeal to Republican likely caucus-goers in Iowa, most of whom self-identify as evangelical Christians. Mary Pawlenty grew up attending Wooddale Church in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and her husband, raised Catholic in South Saint Paul, joined her church when they married in 1987. In the video, as her husband stands silent, watching his wife, she describes the role of faith in her daily life, including “a little time with the Lord, spending time with a devotional, a scripture passage, sometimes in prayer, it varies every day.”

“Sometimes you have a little more time and sometimes you have a little bit less,” she says in the video, but every day her goal is “starting off on the right foot, and just asking God, will he please guide you in the course of your day, help you in your words, help you in your actions, knowing that you’re just going to rest in who God is, and he’s going to lead the way every day.”

The Pawlentys also described their view that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and Mary Pawlenty paraphrased Benjamin Franklin when she said: “If a sparrow cannot fall without God’s knowledge, is it possible that an empire could not rise without his aid? We know that this country was founded by people of faith and that that’s a critical aspect of this country’s roots.”

Mary Pawlenty also holds potential appeal among women voters as a mother and professional who has juggled a legal career with the job of raising their two daughters, Anna, 18, and Mara, 15. She could help counter support among women voters for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan who is hugely popular in Iowa and who, with front-runner Mitt Romney’s decision so far not to compete in Iowa, has positioned herself as Pawlenty’s chief rival in the straw poll and caucuses.

Mary Pawlenty met her future husband while in law school at the University of Minnesota, and she served as a state court judge for nearly 13 years.

The Pawlenty campaign declined to make Mary Pawlenty available for an interview, but released a biography that described her as an “integral” part of her husband’s political career.

“She’s sincere, authentic, smart and connects with people,” Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant said. “Importantly, she’s also very supportive.”

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