DES MOINES (Reuters) - Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty launched his Republican presidential bid in Iowa on Monday, presenting himself as a serious leader ready to tell Americans “the hard truth” about how to solve their country’s mounting fiscal woes.
Trailing in national polls after months as an undeclared White House hopeful, Pawlenty now aims to become a leading candidate for the Republican nomination by promoting his record as a budget-balancing conservative governor from an important swing state that usually leans Democratic.
The target of his first official campaign remarks was President Barack Obama, whom Pawlenty castigated for doing little to lessen the strains of high unemployment, high gasoline prices and a bloated federal deficit.
“It’s time for new leadership. It’s time for a new approach. And, it’s time for America’s president -- and anyone who wants to be president -- to look you in the eye and tell you the truth,” he told supporters in a 20-minute speech in the capital of Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation vote next February.
“Someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead. I will.”
The Iowa caucuses in February 2012 are slated to be the first major contest in the process to nominate the Republican candidate to run against Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
Pawlenty is the son of a truck driver who grew up near stockyards and a meat-packing plant. He was 16 when his mother died of cancer and his father lost his job. Pawlenty went on to work his way through college and law school at the University of Minnesota.
Despite the struggles of his early life, the soft-spoken Pawlenty is seen by some Republicans as lacking the toughness needed to take on an incumbent president with strong campaign finances like Obama.
Pawlenty said he would visit New York, Florida and Washington this week to deliver the message that business subsidies, entitlement programs including Social Security and Medicare and federal employee benefits must be addressed if the United States is to reduce a budget deficit due to reach $1.4 trillion this year.
“President Obama’s policies have failed. But more than that, he won’t even tell us the truth about what it’s really going to take to get out of this mess that we’re in,” he said.
“The hard truth is that there are no longer any sacred programs,” Pawlenty added.
Analysts say Pawlenty is unlikely to usurp probable candidate Mitt Romney’s lead with Republican voters any time soon but could benefit if the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign runs into problems.
“Pawlenty’s trying to be the next person to Romney in case Romney stumbles,” said James Thurber, a political science professor at American University in Washington.
Pawlenty’s prospects rose over the weekend when Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels withdrew as a potential contender. Daniels, a favorite among many top Republicans, left behind a field of potential supporters and campaign donors.
Another Republican, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has had a rocky start as a presidential candidate.
Pawlenty also faces competition in Iowa from fellow Minnesotan, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, a congressional Tea Party leader.
Earlier on Monday, Pawlenty acknowledged that he will not be able to match the fund-raising power of Romney, who is widely viewed as the Republican front-runner though he has not formally announced his plans.
Romney, who lost the party nomination John McCain in 2008, raised more than $9 million during the two-year 2010 election cycle and added another $10.25 million on a single day last week.
By contrast, Pawlenty raised $3.4 million in the 2010 cycle and has added less than $500,000 since December.
“We’re not going to be the money champion in the race to start with,” Pawlenty told NBC’s Today show.
“But we’re going to have enough money to run a competitive and successful campaign. It may not be the BMW or the Mercedes campaign. But it’ll be a good solid Buick and maybe even trending toward a Cadillac and that’ll be enough for us to be competitive and win.”
Critics say Pawlenty lacks the charisma needed to win the Republican nomination and beat Obama in the 2012 general election.
“I‘m not running for entertainer-in-chief,” Pawlenty explained on NBC.
Additional reporting by Kim Dixon in Washington; writing by David Morgan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman