EAGAN, Minn. — It was four years ago this summer, when Tim Pawlenty ranked high on the list of John McCain's potential running mates, and Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, were plowing through a questionnaire looking deep into their finances and almost every other aspect of their lives.
After a short-lived presidential bid of his own last year, Pawlenty is again being considered for the Republican ticket. His fate is in the hands of Mitt Romney, a rival-turned-friend, who is on the cusp of announcing his vice presidential selection. Romney has reached a decision, his friends believe, and he may disclose it as soon as this week, the New York Times reported Sunday without naming the friends.
The country received only an abbreviated introduction to Pawlenty, 51, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, whose working-class roots, experience outside Washington and evangelical faith have formed the core of his appeal to a broad spectrum of Republicans.
While Romney has kept more distance from the rest of his primary challengers, he has embraced Pawlenty, seeking his advice about running against President Barack Obama and dispatching him to Republican events on his behalf. They began forging a closer relationship last year on a visit to the Romney family's lakeside home in New Hampshire, aides said, and during debates this year when Pawlenty often traveled with the Romney campaign after dropping out of the race himself.
He has emerged as one of the most energetic cheerleaders and forceful defenders of Romney, firing back against Republican skeptics and Democratic critics alike. All but forgotten are the days when Pawlenty coined the troublemaking term "Obamneycare," suggesting few differences existed between the health care plans of Romney and Obama.
The conservative National Review now describes Pawlenty as "Romney's traveling salesman." While other potential vice presidential candidates like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have day jobs that limit their availability, Pawlenty, who has no other full-time position, is available to do whatever Romney asks.
"I'm happy to help where I can," Pawlenty said in a brief interview from his home in Eagan, a suburb of Minneapolis. He deflects questions about being Romney's partner, saying, "I think I can best serve him in other ways, but anybody would be honored to be asked."
The vetting of possible vice presidential candidates is approaching an end. It has been a secretive process overseen by one of Romney's closest confidants, Beth Myers. But several Republicans close to the campaign believe Pawlenty and Portman stand out among others who have been considered, the New York Times reported.
In 2008, as McCain was narrowing in on a running mate, several aides recommended Pawlenty. Others pushed for a bolder choice, a candidate who would create more enthusiasm among Republican activists. Four years later, being passed over for Sarah Palin may work in Pawlenty's favor.
"In a lot of ways, he's the anti-Palin," said Steve Schmidt, a strategist to McCain who expressed regret for her selection. "Here's a guy who is prepared to be president on Day 1."
A year ago, as the Republican presidential field was emerging, aides to Obama kept close tabs on Pawlenty and his plain-spoken message as a so-called Sam's Club Republican. They spoke privately about how his blue-collar upbringing in South Saint Paul, Minn., in the shadows of stockyards, could be compelling to voters with the economy on their minds.
Now, as the president and his re-election campaign are relentlessly hammering away at Romney's wealth and business background, some admirers of Pawlenty believe that he could help ease the criticism that the Republican ticket does not appeal to working-class voters.
"An appealing counterbalance to Romney being a son of a wealthy man and going to elite schools is Pawlenty being the son of a truck driver who went to the University of Minnesota," said Ray Washburne, a Dallas businessman who began helping Romney's campaign after Pawlenty left the race.