TAMPA — He is the son of a truck driver with a record of slashing spending, taking on public employee unions and quoting the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story.
In the end, though, the most significant feature of Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty could be that he is not Mitt Romney.
The ever-shrinking Republican presidential field looks increasingly as if it will come down to a choice between former Massachusetts Gov. Romney and somebody else. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich? Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman? Or Pawlenty, who formally kicked off his campaign Monday in Iowa and promptly headed to Florida to court leading donors and activists?
"It's time to tell the truth to the American people. They can handle it," Pawlenty told more than 50 Tampa Bay Republicans eager to see the little-known former Minnesota governor. "We've got a country that is facing unbelievable debt and deficit, our federal government is out of control. . . . We've got to provide the leadership, the courageous, bold, authentic, honest leadership that defines the problems, and the solutions."
Pawlenty is a lanky 50-year-old who, according to Stephen Colbert, looks like everybody's former high school guidance counselor. He barely registers in national polls or Florida polls, he lacks the vast resources of Romney, and nobody describes him as a mesmerizing speaker.
But more and more Pawlenty looks like a top contender as the potential Republican field shrinks. In the past few weeks, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, New York developer and reality TV star Donald Trump, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and, most recently, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, have taken their names out of the mix.
"There are two schools of thought. One is that with Mitch Daniels out of the race, there is no one who can raise the funds needed to be the nominee other than Romney. The other school of thought is that somebody will occupy the anybody-but-Mitt place in the race. The less competition there is, the more likely Pawlenty is to fill that space,'' said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw of Tallahassee, who had been poised to work for Barbour and now is neutral.
Florida is expected to be a pivotal state in determining the GOP nominee, coming after the first four contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Romney has a vast political network in Florida left over from 2008, but Pawlenty's appearance Monday night in Tampa underscored the cracks in Romney's support and how much hunger there is for an alternative Republican nominee.
"I would have been with Mitch Daniels, but I'm very impressed with Tim Pawlenty. I'm inclined at this point to support him," former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez said after listening to Pawlenty for 20 minutes. "I think he can carry Florida in the primary. He has the ability to connect with people, maybe because he comes from a humble background.''
The reception was at the home of Tampa lawyer and GOP fundraiser Martin Garcia, a Romney backer in 2008 who had been ready to help Daniels this year. Now he's with Pawlenty.
"There are a lot of people who used to be with Romney that are not with him this time,'' said Justin Sayfie, lobbyist, Republican consultant and top fundraiser from Fort Lauderdale, who is enthusiastically backing Pawlenty. "Florida's up for grabs and the more Tim Pawlenty can speak to Florida Republicans, the more they'll see he's the best candidate to win the nomination and also the best candidate to beat Barack Obama."
Pawlenty is an evangelical Christian, which could give him an advantage in the Iowa caucuses dominated by social conservatives. The son of a truck driver whose mother died when he was 16 grew up in a meat packing community and was the first member of his family to graduate college.
"He has a good story to tell. He comes from humble beginnings and is a self-made guy,'' said Dr. A. K. Desai, a St. Petersburg insurance executive who supported Romney in 2008.
Desai is uncommitted so far this cycle, but hosted a dinner Monday night for Pawlenty.
"People in the Republican Party are looking for somebody who can connect with people. And that could be an appeal for Pawlenty," Desai said.
Pawlenty for years has argued that Republicans need "to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." For conservatives looking for purity, his record offers plenty of reasons for skepticism.
Cigarette taxes jumped dramatically under his watch, he advocated cap-and-trade policies to combat global warming, and critics say he bears responsibility for the $5 billion deficit Minnesota faced after Pawlenty left office.
At the same time, he cut taxes and spending in a Democratic state and demanded public employees accept pension cuts.
The first prominent Florida Republican to embrace Pawlenty was Phil Handy, a Winter Park investor, longtime education reform advocate and former chairman of the state board of education. Handy said he spoke to all the prospective candidates and Pawlenty stood out.
"Tim Pawlenty was substantive. He was real, he was just what America needs to take on a sitting president,'' Handy said. "I thought he would fill the space that America is looking for — which is telling the truth about what America needs to be done."
Earlier this month Mitt Romney raised $10 million in a single day, providing a sharp reminder of his considerable advantages. In Florida, most former Romney fundraisers remain committed to him, but there is also a vast pool of grass roots activists and donors sitting on the sidelines waiting for a candidate to endorse. Pawlenty has lined up one of Florida's most respected GOP fundraisers, former Jeb Bush adviser Ann Herberger, to help raise money.
"We've got a bunch of candidates that would make great presidents, but we don't have a lot that make great candidates,'' said veteran fundraiser Al Hoffman, a former John McCain supporter who still hasn't found a preferred candidate. "Huntsman is the real dark horse. Pawlenty is the semidark horse. For me it remains to be seen who it is."
Pawlenty the underdog sees the vacuum.
"There is a big opening, a runway I call it,'' he said Monday night in Tampa. "And we're warming up the engines and getting ready to taxi on down."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com