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WASHINGTON/MINNEAPOLIS, May 23 (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty says he will not have enough money to run a "BMW" campaign nationally but he is making a big financial bet on Iowa, where he needs to make a big splash to keep his bid afloat.
Pawlenty, who declared his candidacy on Sunday for the 2012 vote, has more troops on the ground in Iowa than any of the other candidates combined, according to the Iowa Republican website.
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 Democratic President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who is lagging in polls, has about 10 field staffers, a state director, deputy state director and state chairman in Iowa, according to his campaign.
He is running a big and costly operation in the early voting state, said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor.
"It's a Napoleonic army sort of thing," Jacobs said. "This is like a cruise ship he's put together."
Current fund-raising figures are not available yet but Pawlenty's Freedom First PAC raised $3.4 million during the 2010 election cycle and spent $3.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Big contributions came from executives, employees or the political action committees of Morgan Stanley, Citadel Investment and Comcast Corp.
In recent weeks, he has held several big-ticket fund-raisers.
Republican rival Mitt Romney is likely to do well in the other main early voting state New Hampshire, next door to Massachusetts where he was governor.
So Pawlenty, who has recently beefed up his conservative credentials with an eye on winning in Iowa, is gambling on making a hit early in the Midwestern state and carrying that momentum into the rest of the race.
"This is Pawlenty putting a lot of eggs in one basket, but he needs to," said David Peterson, an associate professor at Iowa State University. "It could be over pretty quick for Pawlenty if he doesn't do well here and that isn't the case for any other candidate."
Pawlenty on Monday tried to dampen expectations about how much cash he will raise.
"We will not be the money champion in the race to start with. My friend, Mitt Romney, will be the front-runner in that regard," he told NBC's Today show, noting his nomination bid "may not be the BMW or the Mercedes campaign."
Nevertheless, Pawlenty has attracted top political campaign talent in Iowa, Jacobs said, who are "pulling down big paychecks. Pawlenty needs to be careful he doesn't create the McCain mistake," Jacobs said.
Republican Senator and presidential candidate John McCain was forced to downscale his campaign after spending lavishly in 2007, laying off staffers and damaging morale.
This time, Republican candidates are struggling to keep up with Obama, a strong incumbent president, in the opinion polls and money stakes.
Pawlenty formally launched his presidential attempt with a speech in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday.
The Republican race for money is slow going, although Romney is ahead of Pawlenty and other candidates such as Newt Gingrich.
Romney's fund-raising political action committee raised about three times as much as Pawlenty's during the 2010 election cycle, and his personal wealth gives him another edge.
"You basically have Romney head and shoulders above everyone else," said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine. "The question is which of the candidates will be in the position by the end of this year to raise the $25 million to $30 million they will need for Iowa and New Hampshire."
Romney is well on his way there, having raised more than $10 million last week alone at a "dialing for dollars" fund-raiser.
"The challenge for Governor Pawlenty is he's a new face in national politics. He had no preexisting network (of funders) or personal wealth. He's spent a lot of time introducing himself to Republicans around the country." said Alex Conant, spokesman for the campaign. (Additional reporting by Ros Krasny and David Morgan; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)