ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As a presidential hopeful, Tim Pawlenty won respect among GOP insiders, social conservatives and the tea party movement. Far from the first love of any faction, he quickly washed out as a candidate.

Almost a year after he abandoned his White House bid, Pawlenty's reputation as being suitable but not a standout is actually fueling the speculation that the former Minnesota governor is a serious contender in Republican Mitt Romney's search for a running mate.

Romney is keeping the process tightly under wraps. An announcement could come at any point between now and the Republican convention in late August. It's unclear who the Romney campaign is vetting, though Pawlenty's name comes up frequently in political circles as a prospect. Pawlenty himself isn't giving any clues even as Republicans debate the pros and cons of a Romney-Pawlenty ticket.

To hear these insiders tell it, the earnest Pawlenty might end up satisfying many Republicans without risking the unwelcome distractions that could result from a running mate who is flashier than the nominee, who has close ties to an unpopular past administration or whose background has largely avoided scrutiny.

"He's not a Sarah Palin. He's a Joe Biden type of pick," said Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, describing Pawlenty as "appealing and acceptable to all branches of the conservative base and the Republican Party as a whole."

Pawlenty, an evangelical, also could help quell any lingering unease about Romney's Mormonism among some conservatives. As the self-made son of a truck driver, his life story could relate more to middle-class voters than that of Romney, the wealthy businessman and son of a former governor.

Campaigning last week for Romney in blue-collar Pittsburgh, Pawlenty weaved a mention of his 1970s boyhood in a struggling meatpacking town to convey his grasp of economic woes on a more personal level.

"I saw the face of unemployment and dislocation from the economy and the effects that has on moms and dads and people and families, neighborhood and community," Pawlenty said in a hushed tone. "I saw it at a real young age, up close and real personal."

During his eight years leading Minnesota, Pawlenty restricted abortions and expanded gun rights. He also stocked his state's judiciary with conservative judges and made frequent use of vetoes and executive budget-cutting powers to curb spending.

His biggest blemish was rather tame – a tobacco surcharge that he insisted be labeled a fee, not a tax. The decision triggered a semantic dispute mirroring the fight over whether President Barack Obama's health insurance mandate is a penalty or a tax.

What Pawlenty lacks is the star power to give Romney's ticket a boost among any key constituency or critical voting bloc. He would also be hard-pressed to swing Minnesota to Republicans for the first time since 1972 – before Pawlenty, 51, was even old enough to vote. His two statewide victories came in races in which he benefited from multiple candidates dividing the vote on the left.

With the presidential race so tight, some GOP leaders want Romney to opt for solid over spectacular, someone who is tested rather than intriguingly new to the national scene.

"He's better prepared than any of these other folks being talked about a lot, in terms of the intellectual and physical rigor of a campaign and the kind of grilling you're going to face," said Bill Lacy, who advised Republican Bob Dole during his presidential campaigns.

When Republicans began lining up last year to challenge Obama, Pawlenty was regarded as a threat to Romney, the presumed front-runner. Pawlenty landed top campaign talent and boasted of his achievements as a Republican who was twice elected to lead a Democratic-leaning state. But he struggled to excite voters and finished a disappointing third in a summer 2011 test vote in Iowa, leading him to quit the race.

Pawlenty soon embraced an industrious role as a go-anywhere, get-tough surrogate for Romney – precisely the tasks often assigned to running mates. Last week he was on a bus in Ohio and Pennsylvania, attacking Obama's record before the president's own bus pulled in for campaign rallies. Before that, he was Romney's emissary to out-of-the-way Republican conventions in California, Michigan, Oklahoma and other spots. And he's scooped ice cream by Ann Romney's side after serving warm-up duties for her husband in New Hampshire.

Campaigning for someone else, Pawlenty has been far more relaxed than when he was on his own. Back then, he tended to come off as bland and rehearsed – especially when stacked against candidates with more flair, such as fellow Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann.

Like other vice presidential contenders, Pawlenty sidesteps questions about his interest in the No. 2 post. He initially asked to be removed from parlor-game shortlists. Now he says it's an honor to be mentioned, while insisting he's content to help Romney in other ways.

"I am enjoying my time in the private sector and view my role in this presidential campaign as being a key volunteer," Pawlenty told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "So, anything beyond that would be an unexpected development."

Part of the hesitancy stems from 2008, when Pawlenty was a runner-up to Palin as John McCain's vice presidential choice. In his memoir last year, Pawlenty recalled marveling about the fact that he was even being vetted. He said it proved that life was "unpredictable" and "filled with possibilities," and he comically described scurrying to pull together the paper trail covering intimate financial and personal details.

As time wore on, Pawlenty concluded he wouldn't be chosen. He suspected McCain would go with Romney, whose own presidential campaign came up short that year. "I actually talked to Mitt about that at some point later on, and he said he thought it was going to be me," Pawlenty wrote.

This time, friends say, Pawlenty seems content to let the process play out around him rather than sweat over it. Meanwhile, he's charted a lucrative course by joining half a dozen corporate boards. As a director at a software company, for instance, he'll pull down $200,000 in salary and restricted stock shares this year. The other companies include medical technology and natural gas exploration firms; they are privately held and don't report their compensation packages.

Investor Ron Eibensteiner, a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman who serves alongside Pawlenty on a startup company board, said that while Pawlenty is acclimating well to corporate culture, the tug of politics remains naturally strong.

"I would imagine that he is very focused on making a little bit of money because he really doesn't have a lot," Eibensteiner said. "But if a good (political) opportunity arose, would he consider it? Absolutely. He'd be a fool not to."

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  • Bob McDonnell

    <strong>Who:</strong> Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> McDonnell <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/20/bob-mcdonnell-mitt-romney-endorsement_n_1218559.html" target="_hplink">endorsed Mitt Romney</a>, the only candidate besides Ron Paul to make it on his state's ballot, and Romney <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0711/59933.html#ixzz1TJCfqwQ4" target="_hplink">said last summer </a>that McDonnell would be on "any candidate's short-list" as a VP pick. Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.)<a href="http://goosecreek.patch.com/articles/veep-speculation-greets-mcdonnell-in-s-c" target="_hplink"> has already started referring </a>to McDonnell as "Mr. Vice President." <strong>His Response:</strong> McDonnell said on "Meet The Press" in March that he wasn't interested in the position. "I've got the job held by Jefferson and Henry," <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/maryland-politics/post/martin-omalley-touts-bob-mcdonnell-for-vice-president-kind-of/2012/03/11/gIQATP6I5R_blog.html" target="_hplink">he said</a>. "I love being governor of Virginia."

  • Chris Christie

    <strong>Who:</strong> New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Christie <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/04/chris-christie-president-2012_n_948401.html" target="_hplink">fielded numerous calls</a> to run in 2012, and is now attracting speculation as a possible VP pick by Mitt Romney, who called Christie, "one of the leading figures in the Republican party." <strong>His Response:</strong> Christie didn't do much to quell the rumors in December when he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/23/chris-christie-vice-president-mitt-romney_n_1167557.html" target="_hplink">addressed them</a> by saying: <blockquote>I don't think you talk about that stuff. I think if you're the nominee you're afraid to talk about that stuff because you don't want to jinx yourself. I don't think [Romney] wants to be presumptuous enough to start talking to somebody about a vice president when he's not yet the nominee.</blockquote>

  • Marco Rubio

    <strong>Who:</strong> Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Newt Gingrich <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/newt-gingrich-marco-rubio_n_1242912.html" target="_hplink">called Rubio</a> an "awfully good" choice, while Mitt Romney named him as an obvious choice for the short-list. As the Huffington Post's Carlos Harrison <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/02/marco-rubio-tea-party_n_1249480.html?ref=gingrich-2012" target="_hplink">reported</a>, "He's the posterboy for a demographic coveted by the GOP: a telegenic Tea Party favorite and a Latino. And despite being both young and a freshman among Washington, D.C., power brokers, he exerts outsized influence." <strong>His Response:</strong> Rubio himself <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/10/i-am-not-going-to-be-the-vp-nominee/" target="_hplink">seems less enthusiastic</a>: <blockquote>When asked at the Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in Washington DC, Rubio repeated twice for emphasis, "I am not going to be the Vice Presidential nominee. I am not going to be the Vice Presidential nominee." Asked during the forum if he would turn down an offer if the Republican presidential nominee asks him to, Rubio responded, "Yea, I believe so," adding again, "the answer is gonna be no."</blockquote>

  • Brian Sandoval

    <strong>Who:</strong> Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Ahead of the Nevada caucus, Sandoval <a href="http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/02/could-mitt-romney-pick-up-a-vp-in-nevada.php" target="_hplink">was speculated</a> to be a potential VP pick: <blockquote>Nevada's governor Brian Sandoval has been bandied about as a potential -- if longshot -- veep choice since his election in 2010. On paper, his resume looks solid. He's a young rising star in the party with strong approval ratings and, as a Hispanic Republican, could help a Republican nominee -- and especially Romney -- stop the bleeding with one of the party's weakest general election demographics. </blockquote> While no candidates have floated his name for VP yet, Mitt Romney <a href="http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2012/jan/26/mitt-romney-mentions-brian-sandoval-cabinet-possib/" target="_hplink">did mention him</a> as a possible Cabinet member. <strong>His Response:</strong> After endorsing Rick Perry last September, Sandoval <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2011/09/16/nevada-gov-brian-sandoval-wont-be-rick-perrys-vice-presidential-pick/" target="_hplink">denied that he was looking for a VP nod</a>. "I am absolutely committed to serving out my term," he said.

  • Nikki Haley

    <strong>Who:</strong> South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Haley's endorsement of Mitt Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/22/nikki-haley-romney_n_1221682.html" target="_hplink">didn't do him much good</a> in the state, but her name has still come up as a possible candidate for VP. <strong>Her Response:</strong> "I'd say, 'Thank you, but no,'" <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/News/south-carolina-gov-nikki-haley-shed-turn-vp/story?id=16050396#.T3nGGCvLx1Z" target="_hplink">Haley told ABC News</a>. "I made a promise to the people of this state. And I think that promise matters. And I intend to keep it."

  • Susana Martinez

    <strong>Who:</strong> New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Martinez has attracted attention as the first female Hispanic governor, and Mitt Romney <a href="http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/01/23/new-mexico-gov-susana-martinez-says-no-thanks-to-mention-her-as-possible-romney/" target="_hplink">mentioned her</a> as a good possible running mate. <strong>Her Response:</strong> Martinez <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/205571-nm-governor-not-interested-in-vp-spot" target="_hplink">has said</a> she's flattered, but not interested: <blockquote>"She has no interest in serving as vice president and will not be a candidate for the position," Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said in a statement according to the Santa Fe New Mexican on Friday. </blockquote>

  • Haley Barbour

    <strong>Who:</strong> Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Barbour was considered a promising candidate for the 2012 nomination until he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/25/haley-barbour-2012-presid_n_851969.html" target="_hplink">decided not to run</a> last summer. Mitt Romney has mentioned Barbour as a name <a href="http://www.examiner.com/charleston-democrat-in-charleston-sc/romney-names-possible-vp-candidates" target="_hplink">he'd consider</a> for vice president. <strong>His Response:</strong> Barbour wouldn't turn down the possibility of being VP, but he said he didn't anticipate being asked. "I don't think I'm a good running mate for anybody, but I do think Marco Rubio would be very attractive as would other people," <a href="http://foxnewsinsider.com/2011/11/07/mississippi-gov-haley-barbour-on-whether-he-would-consider-being-a-vp-pick-in-2012/" target="_hplink">he told FOX last November</a>.

  • Mitch Daniels

    <strong>Who:</strong> Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Daniels hasn't endorsed a candidate yet, but he's considered a potential pick for the VP slot. His book, "Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans," <a href="http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/09/19/mitch_daniels_stirs_vp_buzz_with_new_book_111382.html" target="_hplink">added to the hype</a>. <strong>His Response:</strong> Daniels was asked about the possibility <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/30/2012-gop-vice-presidential-candidate_n_988558.html" target="_hplink">last fall</a>: <blockquote>"There's no answer to this question," Daniels said when the vice president's job came up while he was promoting his book. He said he'd have to consult his family, which earlier vetoed the idea of him running for president.</blockquote>

  • Jan Brewer

    <strong>Who:</strong> Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Brewer made headlines for a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/jan-brewer-pac-obama-fundraiser_n_1241794.html" target="_hplink">confrontation with President Barack Obama</a> at an airport in Phoenix. Does Brewer want another chance to take on the Obama administration? The <a href="http://www.azcentral.com/news/election/azelections/articles/2011/10/16/20111016brewer-vice-president-hopeful.html" target="_hplink">Arizona Republic</a> reports that her name has surfaced as a possible VP candidate. <strong>Her Response:</strong> None so far.

  • Tim Pawlenty

    <strong>Who:</strong> Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Pawlenty was a short-lived presidential candidate, quitting in the summer after a third-place finish in the Iowa straw polls. He later endorsed Mitt Romney, who named him as a <a href="http://www.examiner.com/charleston-democrat-in-charleston-sc/romney-names-possible-vp-candidates" target="_hplink">possible VP candidate</a>. <strong>His Response:</strong> Pawlenty <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/tim-pawlenty-mitt-romney-vice-president_n_1299377.html" target="_hplink">said in an interview</a> that he'd taken himself "off the list" to be considered as Romney's VP.

  • Rob Portman

    <strong>Who:</strong> Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Portman is a supporter of Mitt Romney. In December, his home state's <em>Dayton Daily News</em><a href="http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/politics/portman-still-viable-as-vp-nominee-1301194.html" target="_hplink"> ran an article</a> touting his chances to become VP: <blockquote>His deep resume and absence of political negatives keep him in the discussion as a vice-presidential candidate. "I would be very surprised if the eventual nominee doesn't have Rob on the short list,'' said Tony Fratto, who served as White House press secretary to former President George W. Bush.</blockquote> <strong>His Response:</strong> Portman is noncommittal about being on anyone's presidential ticket. "I truly am not seeking that," he said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News' Washington Bureau.

  • Bobby Jindal

    <strong>Who:</strong> Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Jindal, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/12/bobby-jindal-rick-perry-endorsement-2012_n_959162.html" target="_hplink">who endorsed Rick Perry</a>, has seen his star fade <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/25/bobby-jindal-response-pan_n_169710.html" target="_hplink">since his widely panned State of the Union response</a> in 2009. But he is still viewed as a potential pick. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) <a href="http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2011/11/gov-scott-bobby-jindal-would-be-a-great-vp.html" target="_hplink">praised him</a>, saying, "He's well-liked. He's a nice person to deal with. He clearly cares about people. He's willing to make tough choices," Scott said. "So I think he would make a great vice president." <strong>His Response:</strong> "I don't want a job from Governor Perry," Jindal <a href=" http://blog.chron.com/rickperry/2011/09/bobby-jindal-wont-be-rick-perrys-vp-but-says-hes-a-great-neighbor/" target="_hplink">said after endorsing the former candidate</a>. "I want Governor Perry to create millions of jobs for my fellow Americans."

  • John Thune

    <strong>Who:</strong> Sen. Jon Thune (R-S.D.) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Thune, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/22/john-thune-2012-not-running-for-president_n_826582.html" target="_hplink">once viewed</a> as a potential 2012 candidate himself, has <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/23/mitt-romney-john-thune-endorsement_n_1109456.html" target="_hplink">since endorsed Mitt Romney</a>. <strong>His Response:</strong> Thune has said he's not interested in the VP role, but<a href="http://www.kcautv.com/story/16449478/south-dakota-senator-john-thune-not-interested-in-vp-race" target="_hplink"> he wouldn't rule anything out</a>.

  • Kelly Ayotte

    <strong>Who:</strong> Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Ayotte was an early supporter of Mitt Romney. He gave her an endorsement of his own, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/22/mitt-romney-kelly-ayotte_n_1108125.html" target="_hplink">naming her</a> as a possible pick for vice president. <strong>Her Response:</strong> Ayotte said she was "surprised" by Romney's comment, but that "certainly it was an honor to be mentioned." "I am very committed to representing New Hampshire," she <a href="http://www.unionleader.com/article/20111130/NEWS0605/711309959" target="_hplink">told the <em>New Hampshire Union Leader</em></a>. "It is such a privilege to serve New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate."

  • Sam Brownback

    <strong>Who:</strong> Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> Brownback endorsed Rick Perry for president, <a href="http://www.kansas.com/2011/09/23/2029027/brownback-endorses-perry-for-president.html" target="_hplink">prompting speculation</a> that he could be looking for a spot as vice president. Brownback also briefly ran for president in 2008. <strong>His Response:</strong> During the last election cycle, Brownback <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/03/13/brownback-would-be-honore_n_91341.html" target="_hplink">said he'd be "honored"</a> to serve as John McCain's vice president. He hasn't yet commented this time around.

  • Allen West

    <strong>Who:</strong> Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) <strong>The Buzz:</strong> West has been named as a strong contender by a number of his peers, including Herman Cain, <a href="http://livewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/entries/herman-cain-endorses-allen-west-for-vice-presdient" target="_hplink">who called him an "excellent choice"</a>, and Nikki Haley, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/05/nikki-haley-allen-west_n_1405401.html" target="_hplink">who said he would make a "good" pick</a>. <strong>His Response:</strong> "Yes, well, right now, you know, the focus is, of course, being a good congressional representative," <a href="http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2012/04/06/allen_west_i_would_say_yes_to_vp_slot_on_gop_ticket.html" target="_hplink">West told CNN's Kyra Phillips</a>. "But if someone were to make that call to me, which I really doubt is ever going to happen, you would have to make sure that it is something that god would ordain for you, and you'd have to talk to your wife, my wife and my two daughters about. But we have always stepped up to the plate to serve our country. And if it's the right fit, then I will do so."