It may not be exactly fair to say the 2012 battle for the Republican presidential nomination officially kicked off this week at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference that is taking place here in Washington.
But it sure felt like it. Yesterday, there was Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and 2008 hopeful, with a forceful speech attacking the Obama administration. Tomorrow we'll hear from Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Rick Santorum, the ex-Pennsylvania senator, both of whom are thinking about running.
And this afternoon, there was Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing governor of Minnesota who is in the process of setting up a skeletal 2012 operation. NPR Washington digital correspondent Liz Halloran was there, and has this write-up.
In a 25-minute speech that was politely, if not rousingly received, the amiable governor sought to burnish his conservative anti-tax bona fides, and portray himself as a humble, God-fearing family man of the heartland.
"God is in charge," he said, prompting perhaps his loudest round of applause.
He said that suggestions by some who would say such an overt assertion is "politically incorrect" are simply "hogwash."
"If it's good enough for our Founding Fathers, it's good enough for us," said Pawlenty, who urged his fellow party members to fight back like the Union's scrappy war General Ulysses S. Grant.
Like other potential White House seekers who have or are scheduled to appear at the three-day conference, Pawlenty sharply criticized Obama's handling of terrorism suspects, and lauded what he characterized as a conservative comeback that has surprised everyone but conservatives.
The governor, who was on John McCain's VP short-list in 2008, took special aim at "elites" and "pundits" who, he says, dismiss conservatives as "bumpkins."
The trope of San Francisco sophisticates at "Chablis and brie parties" versus heartland Americans also made an appearance in the governor's comments.
His speech sounded familiar conservative themes, peppered as it was with familiar Republican lines, and invocations of President Reagan.
Pawlenty noted that he's governor of the only state that voted against Reagan. But that was in 1984, when former Minnesota Sen. (and ex-Vice President) Walter Mondale was the Democratic candidate. The state, while still in the "blue" column, has become much more politically diverse and divided in the intervening quarter century — witness the recent deadlocked Senate contest between Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, who eventually conceded after a long court battle.
Still, for the record, Minnesota has gone longer than any other state to vote Republican for president — nine consecutive elections.
Pawlenty joked about what he characterized as Obama's penchant for blaming former President Bush for the nation's problems — including the bad weather that hit Washington last week.
He mocked the president for allegedly using a teleprompter recently while speaking to elementary school children last month, a GOP talking point that has been disproved. (Pawlenty, to his credit, did not make the claim while actually reading from a teleprompter.)
And he resurrected the Bush-era anti-French meme, using an exaggerated accent to pronounce French President Nicolas Sarkozy's name, and invoking the leader's chiding of Obama's talk-it-out response to news of Iran's expanded nuclear ambitions.
Pawlenty's comments echoed those made last fall by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who, in the wake of Obama's response to Iran's nuclear revelations, wrote: "When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom."
But, overall, Pawlenty's was a genial GOP call-to-arms, balanced on familiar themes and delivered in his usual low-key style. But marked by one very odd off-the-news moment: Conservatives, Pawlenty said, should take a lesson from Tiger Woods' wife.
That would be? Take a 9 iron, the governor said, and use it to "smash a window out of big government in this country."