MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Tim Pawlenty wants to be president, even though the former Minnesota governor has very little name recognition outside his home state. Still, some Republicans think his combination of executive experience and fiscal conservatism makes him a serious contender.

NPR's Martin Kaste introduces us to Pawlenty as part of our series looking at the likely presidential candidates and the spark that got them into politics.

MARTIN KASTE: You may not be ready yet. But in Iowa, they're already thinking 2012.

Unidentified Man: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...

KASTE: In the tiny town of Fayette, the local Republican Party is holding a fundraising lunch. It's a small event, but not too small for Tim Pawlenty.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Republican Governor, Minnesota): How are you? Good to see you. Hi, guys.

KASTE: Tall and trim, with a good head of hair, Pawlenty shakes every hand in front of him. He just wrapped up two terms as governor of Minnesota. And now, he's selling himself to these Iowans as the guy who brought small government to those liberals up North.

Mr. PAWLENTY: It's the land of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone and now United States Senator Al Franken. As Frank Sinatra would sing about New York, if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.

(Soundbite of applause)

KASTE: Of course, these days, Minnesota's also the land of the Tea Party's favorite, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

It's actually been a while since Minnesota was reliably liberal, and Tim Pawlenty's career parallels that shift from blue to purple. It's a career that he says got its spark, not from any single political issue or event, but from a person.

Mr. PAWLENTY: It really was Ronald Reagan. It really was Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I mean, in the - it really looked like America was in a mess, and here we had this strong, hopeful, optimistic candidate emerge in the form of Ronald Reagan. And that was really the first experience I had with politics, and he really inspired me.

KASTE: Now, you might be thinking that's a safe answer. These days, even President Obama claims to be inspired by Reagan. But it wasn't such a safe answer 30 years ago in Pawlenty's blue-collar neighborhood in South St Paul. As he remembers it, everybody there was working-class Democrat, people who thought Republicans were out to get them.

Mr. VIRGIL PAWLENTY: Him and his father went back and forth.

KASTE: This is his uncle, Virgil Pawlenty, recalling the debates between young Tim and his father, Gene.

Mr. V. PAWLENTY: It was a lot about the union, business and sometimes a little politics. And they would have a back-and-forth, you know, because Gene was a truck driver.

KASTE: An unemployed truck driver at times. There were a lot of out of work people in South St Paul after the local stockyards shut down.

Nationwide, many of these blue-collar voters eventually embraced Ronald Reagan; the Reagan Democrats of 1980, and it was a political shift that the teenaged Tim Pawlenty got a jump on. And he wasn't shy about telling people what he thought, according to his Aunt Judy.

Ms. JUDY PAWLENTY: When he was in high school, I guess he questioned a lot of things. And like I say, he was very up on what was going on in the world. And so the kids all started calling him senator, and it just kind of stuck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: Pawlenty's campaign says the nickname thing never happened. But you hear the story a lot in South St. Paul, and it says something about local memories of young Tim Pawlenty's eagerness to move on to bigger and better things.

(Soundbite of choir)

KASTE: This is Holy Trinity, the parish where Tim Pawlenty grew up. In a lot of ways, this is still that old Minnesota, a church with a strong religious and ethnic identity; in this case, Polish-Catholic. The liturgy is traditional and the blue-haired ladies still have coffee hour down in the basement.

Midway through the Reagan administration, Tim Pawlenty traded this old world in for something a little more up-to-date.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Our God is greater. Our God is stronger...

KASTE: Wooddale Church, a Protestant mega congregation southwest of Minneapolis. Wooddale has everything Holy Trinity lacks; a real coffee shop, an 1,800-seat worship center and a sound system run by a guy who used to work for Prince.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Our God is greater. Our God is stronger...

KASTE: This is post-Reagan Minnesota: suburban, non-denominational and trending Republican.

Reverend LEITH ANDERSON (Senior Pastor, Wooddale Church): It was just the next step in his life and in his journey.

KASTE: Leith Anderson is the senior pastor at Wooddale. He's also the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He still remembers telling his wife about Pawlenty in the 1980s.

Rev. ANDERSON: I said, you know, I think he's really going to be a significant government leader. And she said, like what? And I said, I don't know, maybe president of the United States. I don't claim to be a prophet, but I was impressed.

KASTE: Lately, Pawlenty has made an issue of his faith. His pre-campaign autobiography brims with Bible quotations, and the Almighty gets a shoutout in his Iowa stump speech

Mr. PAWLENTY: We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God.

(Soundbite of crowd)

KASTE: But at the Minnesota State Capitol, where Pawlenty spent two decades jousting with Democrats - first in the House, then as governor -religion rarely came up.

State Senator JOHN MARTY (Democrat, Minnesota): You didn't hear that a lot in his rhetoric as governor.

KASTE: Democratic State Senator John Marty says the real struggle was about money; specifically, the governor's Reaganesque hostility to taxes, which Marty believes led directly to the state's current $5 billion dollar budget deficit.

State Sen. MARTY: Pawlenty left the state - I mean, he's the first governor to leave the state with a fiscal mess.

KASTE: Pawlenty's defenders say it's not fair to blame him for the current fiscal crisis.

Attorney Dennis O'Brien gave Pawlenty his first law job in the 1980s.

Mr. DENNIS O'BRIEN (Attorney): The Democratic side of this equation has got a good story. But the low-tax, grow-the-economy, generate-revenue was also a substantial, intellectually coherent perspective.

KASTE: O'Brien acknowledges that there is still a lot of lingering anger at Pawlenty; rancor, he calls it. But he says it comes from the fact that Minnesota liberals have always found Pawlenty so politically frustrating.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Because he is so personally engaging and such a nice person that they simply have to demonize his politics because he can't be demonized personally.

KASTE: Another echo, perhaps, of Ronald Reagan; that personally engaging guy who so enraged Democrats three decades ago.

Martin Kaste, NPR news.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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