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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Let's turn now to presidential politics.

The Republicans have another candidate, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He formally launched his campaign for president yesterday in Iowa, where he pledged to build the economy, shrink the government, and tell the truth.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports now on how the GOP race is shaping up.

MARA LIASSON: Pawlenty's announcement was no surprise. While other potential candidates have been coy or ambivalent, Pawlenty's been all in for months, visiting the early states and laying the groundwork for a campaign.

Yesterday in Des Moines, he attacked Barack Obama, saying the president hasn't told the truth and that his policies had failed. But Pawlenty also echoed the unifying message Mr. Obama used when he ran for president in 2008.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Republican Presidential Candidate): No president deserves to win an election by dividing the American people - picking winners and losers, protecting his own party's spending and cutting only the other guy's program, pitting classes and ethnicities and generations against each other. The truth is, we're all in this together. So we need to work together to get out of this mess.

LIASSON: Pawlenty presented himself as a truth-telling candidate, willing to say no more bailouts to Wall Street and to tell Iowans that subsidies for ethanol have to be phased out. He came out in favor of raising the retirement age for Social Security and means-testing Medicare. But he balked at endorsing Paul Ryan's plan to give seniors vouchers for health care.

The Democratic National Committee greeted Pawlenty's announcement with this ad about his record in Minnesota:

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: Governor Pawlenty eliminated the program that provides health care to 33,000 low-income residents. The governor has systematically been cutting programs for the poor since he took office.

Unidentified Man: All of the sudden we're going to have 35,000 individuals without health insurance.

LIASSON: Pawlenty's announcement follows decisions from many Republicans not to run. Mitch Daniels said no over the weekend, joining Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, John Thune and Mike Pence on the sidelines. That's left many Republicans grousing about their choices.

Mr. RICK WILSON (Republican Strategist): The grumbling comes from the fact that, you know, people want perfection. They always want that white knight.

LIASSON: That's Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who says this year the white knight doesn't exist. Right now there's no candidate that fires up the social conservative base or unites the Republican establishment.

Mr. WILSON: The field is becoming set. I think there is still room in the next 30 to 45 days for a few other people to poke their nose into it. But I don't think there's a lot of interest from anyone that draws the Republican base out as a cheering hoard at this point.

LIASSON: Most of the dissatisfaction is focused on the candidate who's as close to a frontrunner as the GOP has at the moment, Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has charisma and good ideas and a campaign infrastructure, says Wilson.

Mr. WILSON: But there's one glaring error, and that is he doubled down on the individual mandate on Romneycare. And Republican base voters know that Barack Obama will beat Mitt Romney's head in on that single issue, destroy the morale of the Republican base, and therefore win the election. That's why a lot of Republicans have dismissed Mitt Romney as the serious candidate.

LIASSON: Republican strategist Rich Galen, who used to work for Newt Gingrich, disagrees.

Mr. RICH GALEN (Republican Strategist): I'm not a Romney supporter by any stretch, but at this point I think it's fair to say that Governor Romney is the frontrunner until somebody knocks him off and he's not the frontrunner.

LIASSON: Galen notes that earlier this month Romney was able to raise $10 million in one day.

Mr. GALEN: That speaks volumes to the fact that a lot of people in the Republican Party - maybe not in the, you know, the 150 people that talk about this stuff all day, but to a vast number of Republican primary voters I think Governor Romney is perfectly acceptable. And I think if he gets the nomination, he will be a difficult guy for Obama to beat.

LIASSON: That's hardly a consensus view among Republicans. The GOP presidential field may be set, but Republican voters are far from settled about their choices. The desire is still strong for alternatives.

There are several fantasy candidates out there - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Governor Rick Perry, or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for example - but not a lot of time for any one of them to become a real-life contender.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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