When it comes to greasing the wheels and opening doors on Capitol Hill, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has tapped Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) to lead his outreach to Members ahead of his prospective 2012 White House campaign.
"I have been, frankly, encouraging him to run for president," said Kline, who counts Pawlenty as a constituent and is the governor's first Congressional endorsement, should he run. "Like everyone else, he has not announced that he's doing that."
With the unofficial kickoff of the next presidential cycle some eight months away, Pawlenty's outreach to Republicans on Capitol Hill so far has been organized but minimal. But compared to some of the other potential candidates, including presumed GOP frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Pawlenty could also have the furthest to travel when it comes to ingratiating himself with Members of Congress.
Just before the spring recess, Kline set up a casual introductory breakfast meeting for Pawlenty with fewer than a dozen GOP Members. During the informal conversation, Pawlenty and his team discussed the upcoming May 18 special election in Pennsylvania's 12th district, among many other topics.
In an online forum on March 29, Pawlenty endorsed seven candidates for Congress across the country through his political action committee — including businessman Tim Burns, the GOP nominee in the Pennsylvania special.
Pawlenty's PAC also cut a $10,000 check to the National Republican Senatorial Committee last quarter and met with NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and more than eight GOP Senators on a recent visit to Washington, D.C.
"It's important for Tim to meet people, not only for a possible run in 2012, but the reason for the PAC is to help Republicans in these races," Kline said. "It's importantly for Tim and his team to look around the country and see where the PAC might be helpful."
Sources also said freshman Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) has been lending a hand to Pawlenty's informal efforts, especially with introductions to some of the younger Members. The other Republican in the Minnesota delegation, Rep. Michele Bachmann, also attended the breakfast meeting, although she said in a phone interview that she is not throwing her support to any candidate just yet.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), another often-mentioned 2012 presidential contender, headlined a rally for Bachmann's re-election bid last week in Minnesota. Pawlenty was listed as an "honorary host" along with Kline and Paulsen.
"I am in not any camp at all," Bachmann said when asked if she was picking sides at this early stage of the 2012 contest. "I'm more than happy as a Member of the Minnesota delegation to smooth any pathways that I can for our governor. But I'm not working actively on his presidential campaign or on any presidential campaign."
While Pawlenty's recent breakfast with Members was one of his initial forays into reaching out to Capitol Hill, the governor spends much more time on the road speaking at official GOP events in states such as Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Florida. Pawlenty senior adviser Phil Musser said most of his trips to Washington have been on official state business or through his role as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
"We've had the chance to meet many more Senators and Congressmen in their states," Musser said.
Pawlenty's aides said he has campaigned for and given money to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is running for an open Senate seat this year, has done local events in Minnesota, and recently cut PAC checks for former Rep. Pat Toomey's (R) Pennsylvania Senate bid, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven's (R) Senate bid and Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) re-election campaign.
Collecting chits from Members is an important part of the process in laying the groundwork for a presidential run.
Romney was fairly successful in his effort to build a base of Congressional endorsements in his 2008 bid despite competing with a Member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Romney has also maintained relationships on Capitol Hill by hosting a major event for the NRSC, endorsing candidates for Congress in 2010 and writing checks from his PAC to GOP Members. But even Pawlenty's supporters agree that Romney has a smaller hill to climb given all of the legwork he did last cycle on Capitol Hill.
"Romney, less so than the other folks, already has a network in place," said one Romney supporter with ties to Capitol Hill. "Beginning in 2005 and 2006, and then in 2007 and 2008, he's done this game."
Nonetheless, it's clear that Romney and Pawlenty have different approaches when it comes to seeking the support of Members. Romney's team was renowned for its organized effort in securing dozens of endorsements from Capitol Hill after he announced his campaign.
"I don't think they're viewing this like the Romney guys with a ... list," said one Pawlenty supporter. "The system is being set up to hit the ground running if he ever decides to pull the trigger."
It appears, however, that Romney and Pawlenty are the only potential candidates having casual conversations with Members. Other often-mentioned GOP candidates, including Palin, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, are not engaged in formal or informal outreach efforts to Capitol Hill.
The only often-mentioned potential candidate on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), has repeatedly told reporters that he is focused on winning re-election in November — although the March 30 filing deadline passed without him drawing an opponent. Thune is also not laying any formal groundwork with his colleagues, although he presumably would have the least work to do because of his career in the House and Senate.
In addition to Musser, several other seasoned senior advisers ingrained in Washington are working with Pawlenty's PAC. Former Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant, a Gopher State native, is serving as the PAC's communications director, and veteran lobbyist Sam Geduldig is an informal adviser, serving as Pawlenty's chief liaison to Capitol Hill and K Street.
Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who supported Romney early in the 2008 cycle, is serving as co-chairman of Pawlenty's PAC.
"He's begun the process really with the leadership of John Kline, and it's a very informal, soft-sell approach to meet people who may not know him," Weber said. "He's not making an attempt to organize support or anything like that, but just to introduce himself to people."