03/21/2011 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tim Pawlenty Signals Entitlement Reform Will Be A Focus of Presidential Candidacy As He Takes First Formal Step Toward Running

WASHINGTON -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday became the first relatively well-known Republican to take a formal step toward running for president in 2012, filing papers to form an exploratory committee and announcing the move in a video posted on Facebook.

Pawlenty signaled that he will make entitlement reform a key centerpiece of his potential candidacy. And in a sign that Republicans are emulating President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign strategy, Pawlenty sought to use the high publicity moment to harvest email addresses and other forms of social media contact information.

He made a bid for a positive first impression with many Americans by releasing a highly stylized two-minute video that emphasized his working-class roots and his accomplishments during two terms as governor.

To Americans who have lost jobs or had their homes foreclosed on, Pawlenty pointed to his childhood experience seeing meat-packing plants shut down in St. Paul. “I know that feeling. I lived it,” he said.

Pawlenty’s message to Tea Party voters, whose energy helped the Republican party take control of the House last fall, combined two of the movement’s favorite phrases: “We the people of the United States will take back our government,” he said in voiceover while the video showed U.S. Marines marching.

The 50-year old father of two summarized his time as governor with the claim that his administration “proved we can restore limited government in America.”

As for a platform, Pawlenty gave a vague clue to what he’ll define as his basic planks. “We know what we need to do -- grow jobs, limit government spending, and tackle entitlements,” he said.

He offered few additional specifics in a separate press release, but said that the country needs “a real debate with President Obama, so the American people can decide how to get this country back on track.”

Pawlenty promised to “unite” the GOP around his “optimistic vision,” though he immediately noted that “tough decisions” are required to “renew the American dream.”

It is far from a detailed plan for entitlement spending, which makes up two-thirds of U.S. federal spending, and is considered by Republican primary voters to be the driver of the nation's debt problem. But it is a sign that Pawlenty will seek to ground any candidacy in some proposal to deal with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Pawlenty also launched a website, timpawlenty.com, which features a reward system that doles out points to users who share the site with friends on Facebook or link up their Twitter accounts to their timpawlenty.com profile. Accessing Pawlenty's website at all requires submission of an email address.

His video’s dramatic music and fast-paced editing drew as much immediate reaction as anything Pawlenty said in it. The video was made by Lucas Baiano, a 23-year-old rising star in conservative media whose hiring earlier this year shows that Pawlenty seeks to counter the criticism that he lacks charisma.

But despite the concerns about his star power, Pawlenty is in as good a position as anyone right now to win the race for the GOP nomination, which is scheduled to begin with the Iowa caucuses next Feb. 6. All of the other likely candidates have significant flaws that will prove major drags on their momentum.

Pawlenty, meanwhile, has hired a top-flight roster of staff and advisers, and has been hard at work since early last year building contacts in the race's key early states.

The significance of exploratory committees has been elevated in the age of modern media. Substantively, it is really only a move for a potential candidate toward the formal campaign's more stringent requirements for bookkeeping and toward tighter restrictions on how much money he or she can accept from donors. It also provides potential candidates a legal structure under which to begin hiring staff and paying for travel.

The formation of such committees attracts news coverage now in part because the speed of today’s news cycle means that incremental developments are treated as news simply because they are new. Nonetheless, it is a formal step toward a run.

WATCH Pawlenty's announcement ad: