DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican Tim Pawlenty, "T-Paw" to his supporters, has increasingly tied himself to the new crop of grass-roots activists in the 2012 presidential campaign.
So maybe it's time to call the former Minnesota governor "Tea-Paw."
He says his aggressive outreach to tea party audiences is one important part of a strategy to assemble the diverse network of backers he needs to go national and win the GOP nomination. He's not focusing solely on this emerging force in party politics, he says, perhaps mindful not to alienate other Republican groups.
"I'm not trying to introduce myself to the tea party. I'm trying to introduce myself to the whole party ... because I'm not known outside of Minnesota," Pawlenty told The Associated Press in a telephone interview ahead of a Saturday appearance at a tea party rally at the Iowa Statehouse. He spoke at a similar rally in Boston on Friday and to the movement's national summit in Phoenix in February.
A little-known Midwesterner trying to break out of a crowded GOP field, Pawlenty has said he needs to "win or do very well" in Iowa's lead-off caucuses by attracting social conservatives and pro-business conservatives as well as newly motivated tea party followers. They make up a chunk of the state's electorate: A Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll showed last fall that 39 percent of Iowa voters said they supported the movement.
But Pawlenty faces stiff competition for the allegiance of Iowa's tea partyers from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and others.
"There may be some folks who are running as candidates who are more deeply engrained, or were engrained earlier, in the tea party movement," Pawlenty said in the interview. "As tea party members think about who they want not only to represent the conservative coalition but to win the election, I think we're going to be the candidate the presents the total package."
Pawlenty drew on the movement's critical eye about spending and the reach of government during his speech to about 200 tea party supporters who braved a harsh spring wind at the rally in Des Moines.
"We're here today to send them this message: Don't tread on me," Pawlenty said, borrowing the line from the flags common at tea party rallies.
Cheers greeted Pawlenty when he hit on other familiar themes, including opposition to raising the government's borrowing authority and support for a balanced budget amendment.
"I think one of our basic messages is, the government's too damn big," he said.
Kathy Carley, a Republican and tea party activist from Altoona, said she found Pawlenty convincing.
"But I need to see him in another setting to see if he sounds the same," Carley said. "He sounds like he has the right principles."
Pawlenty has delivered similar messages in private meetings with small groups of influential tea party supporters, as he did in Altoona two weeks ago.
While Pawlenty has made overtures to tea party supporters, his campaign strategists and Iowa advisers are establishment Republican operatives. Conversely, Bachmann has lined up commitments from some of the Iowa's most influential tea party leaders. If she does enter the race, she's expected to pick state Sen. Kent Sorenson, a rising star among the tea party activists, as her chief adviser in the state.
Pawlenty might seem an odd fit as the choice of a movement that sprung up a decade after he rose to GOP leadership in Democratic-leaning Minnesota. He was not invited to his home state's first tea party rally at the state Capitol in St. Paul two years ago, and was a warm-up act last year behind Bachmann and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, also a tea party favorite.
But some Iowa tea partyers say Pawlenty's fiscal record in Minnesota earns him credibility. He was governor during a time of recurring deficits and battles with Democrats over his refusal to consider tax increases. Pawlenty had some success in stemming the growth of programs, but he also he resorted to temporary fixes and enacted new fees that some anti-tax activists considered tax increases.
"I think that the tea party is all about spending," said Brett Rogers, a West Des Moines Republican and co-founder of the Iowa tea party who is undecided about which contender to support heading into 2012. "And Gov. Pawlenty has a great message on that."
Others see Pawlenty as a latecomer and are leaning toward White House prospects with longer ties to the movement but narrower overall appeal, such as Bachmann.
"I don't see him as tea party. I didn't feel like he stood for what I stood for," said Jim Carley, Kathy Carley's husband.
Carley said he was dissatisfied with Pawlenty's answer during a recent meeting with tea party leaders to a question about how to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. According to Carley, Pawlenty said Obama and Congress could refuse to pay for it. Carley wanted more.
"I'm not talking about defunding it. I'm talking about getting rid of it," Carley said.
He's says he's not inclined to support Pawlenty.
Carley likes Bachmann, who has introduced a bill to repeal the health law, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
Bachmann told a tea party gathering of 350 people in South Carolina on Saturday that she doesn't think Obama is "on our side anymore" as she blamed him for a "foolish" war in Libya and high gasoline prices.
Bachmann also said a tea party movement that pundits say is waning is actually winning, citing polls showing Obama's approval rating flagging.
"We're winning. We're winning. 2012 is entirely possible for us to send a change of address form to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," she said.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Bluffton, S.C., contributed to this report.