CONCORD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Tim Pawlenty, the first senior Republican to take the formal step to seek the party’s presidential nomination, brings some advantages into the 2012 race but national recognition isn’t one of them.
The former Minnesota governor’s low public profile puts him far behind other more established national party figures in the early courtship of voters, even though they remain undecided on whether to challenge President Barack Obama.
But a strong team and a personal narrative that fits the key election issues of jobs and deficit reduction will likely make the soft-spoken Pawlenty a more serious contender.
“He has a lot of assets. He’s likable. He’s from the Midwest. He had achievements as a Republican governor of a traditionally Democratic state,” said Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Pawlenty, 50, has visited the early primary state of New Hampshire regularly over the past year.
On Friday, he headlined the annual New Hampshire rally of the conservative Tea Party movement in the state capital Concord as part of an effort to become better known.
Pawlenty led the small crowd in a call-and-response of what he termed Obama’s broken promises on deficit reduction, health care and other topics. “Did President Obama break his promise? Yes, he did!,” Pawlenty said repeatedly.
“His name recognition in New Hampshire and nationally is still under 50 percent. He’s just not making a big impact right now. He’s not unpopular but he’s just not making a splash,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, North Carolina. “If he gets the nomination he will have backed into it, as the default,” he said.
Pawlenty spoke for 40 minutes to some 200 supporters in the New Hampshire town of Nashua on Thursday night and stayed late after the event to parry questions.
That approach will pay off over time, said Concord political consultant Richard Killion, who is working for Pawlenty in the state and worked for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the 2008 White House race.
“Voters here like to kick the tires of their candidates.”
The son of a Polish-American truck driver and a mother who died of cancer when he was 16, Pawlenty grew up in South St. Paul, Minnesota, whose major employer -- the meat packing plant and stockyard -- was closed in the 1960s.
‘KNOWN THE FACES’
“From an early age I’ve known the faces of people who have lost jobs,” he said in Nashua.
With national unemployment at almost 9 percent, jobs are a top campaign issue. Potential Republican rival Romney will face questions about his record as a corporate raider in the 1980s and as Massachusetts governor when his performance on employment was mixed at best.
Pawlenty, who was on Senator John McCain’s short list for vice presidential running mate in 2008, has won plaudits for eliminating a $4.3 billion Minnesota budget deficit, although state Democrats challenge that record.
The North Carolina polling group’s survey of usual Republican primary voters in New Hampshire from early April put Pawlenty in sixth place, with only 4 percent saying they intended to vote for him. Nationally, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll this month showed him at 6 percent.
Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and libertarian U.S. Representative Ron Paul were all ahead of Pawlenty in the PPL poll.
Still, with most voters not yet focused on 2012, that can quickly change.
“Pawlenty has done a great job on what I call ‘the first primary,'” said John Anzalone, Democratic strategist with Anzalone-Liszt Research in Montgomery, Alabama.
“He has built a serious structure, and that has made people view him as serious.”
Pawlenty this week hired Republican whiz kid Nick Ayers as campaign manager. Ayers, 28, is a former director of the Republican Governors Association. Also on board Pawlenty’s campaign are a well-respected pollster and political director.
A National Journal “Political Insiders Poll” has Pawlenty running second to Romney on the question of who is most likely to win the nomination.
The biggest challenge in the next few months will be for Pawlenty to elevate his fund-raising game.
“If he’s going to run with the big dogs, he has to show he can stay in the race,” said Burden.
Editing by Jackie Frank