05/04/2011 09:00 am ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

Tim Pawlenty: 'We've Got To Get Off The Sideline'

DES MOINES (Reuters) - Republicans who intend to compete for the party's 2012 presidential nomination should begin serious campaigning against Democrat Barack Obama, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a likely candidate, said on Tuesday.

"You know, it's May and I can understand if people didn't want to start in December or January. I mean, in the past they've said, 'That's too early,'" Pawlenty said in an interview with Radio Iowa. "Well, you know, it's time."

"We've got to get off the sideline." Pawlenty said. "We've got big challenges and it requires a big challenge and, you know, I think the time to engage President Obama is now."

Pawlenty is one of a handful of potential Republican candidates participating in a debate in South Carolina on Thursday, the first showcase in the election season.

Neither former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney nor former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will take part in the debate. Both were candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign; neither have ruled out a second run in 2012.

Other high-profile potential candidates skipping the debate on Fox News include former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former Ambassador John Huntsman and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann.

Expected to participate will be former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Texas Representative Ron Paul, business executive Herman Cain and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

Without mentioning other candidates by name, Pawlenty suggested his potential competitors in the race to challenge Obama have a narrowing window of opportunity to make their cases to voters.

He said Republican hopefuls needed to start telling voters how they would tackle crucial domestic issues from unemployment to rising gas prices.

"It's going to require that candidates make the case for why Barack Obama should be dismissed from his position and that's going to require a big effort," Pawlenty said, "and it needs to start now."

(Reporting by JoAnne Allen; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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