It's closing in on presidential primary fish-or-cut-bait time, and in Minnesota politicos have been watching, a bit bemused, as two of their home-staters dip their toes into the 2012 Republican presidential waters.
There's former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 50, the amiable "T-Paw," who has been rolling out a more aggressively conservative "Tea-Paw"-as-in-Tea Party persona as he fights to build name recognition and activist support.
And there's U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, 55, who has parlayed anti-Obama rhetoric, Tea Party fervor and Fox News appearances into a growing, if controversial, national profile — including a spot on Time magazine's new list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Pawlenty's dogged nomination pursuit is chugging into its third year, and Bachmann's surprising emergence has come at the same time Sarah Palin's Tea Party star has begun to dim. So why do they seem more a diversion than a source of pride back home?
It's a reality thing, say those steeped in the politics of the North Star State. Barring a substantial Obama stumble, neither prospective candidate is currently seen as able to even deliver Minnesota and its 10 electoral votes come November 2012.
"Both of them can influence the course of the campaign," says GOP strategist Chris Georgacas of St. Paul, a one-time Pawlenty adviser.
But he is among those who discount the likelihood of a Minnesotan — the generalist Pawlenty, or the firebrand Bachmann — landing the GOP nomination.
Tough Path, Even At Home
Pawlenty, who has filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, has said everything is pointing in the direction of a presidential run.
Bachmann has been visiting the early-primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and says she'll decide by June.
"I've never done anything rashly," she said this week on ABC's Good Morning America, adding that she is figuring out "a pathway to success."
Bachmann noted that she has already crossed one hurdle: The $2.2 million she raised in the first three months of this year surpassed every other GOP presidential prospect, including Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who consistently polls at or near the top of the crowded Republican field.
Pawlenty has been positioning himself as the mainstream alternative to Romney. But so far, national polls have not been kind to Pawlenty or Bachmann.
A recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 77 percent of Republicans surveyed are either undecided or don't know enough to have an opinion about Pawlenty, and Bachmann's numbers are roughly the same.
Another survey, by the Washington Post and ABC News, showed President Obama outpolling each of the Minnesotans nationally by a dozen-plus percentage points. That same poll showed Romney polling
within four points of Obama, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee within six points of the president.
"That might tell you a little something about why there's so little excitement here," says Tim Penny, who ran as an independent in the three-way gubernatorial race that Pawlenty won in 2002.
But it's still early, and the GOP race to take on Obama isn't even close to coalescing. Look no further than the recent media tour by businessman and reality-show star Donald Trump, during which he made questioning the president's birthplace a centerpiece of his potential path-to-the-presidency agenda.
The Donald knows his audience: A Times survey this week found that an astounding 45 percent of Republicans polled said they don't think Obama was born in the U.S. (The state of Hawaii, as well as independent fact-check organizations, have verified documents confirming his birth in Honolulu.)
Both Pawlenty and Bachmann see great opportunity in neighboring Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential contest, especially if Huckabee decides not to get in the race. He won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2008, and is considered a front-runner there now — if he decides to run.
Bachmann was born in Iowa. And while she has captured the hearts of the Tea Party right — she founded the House Tea Party caucus — she is widely viewed as playing fast and loose with the truth. And her culturally conservative politics make her a difficult, if not impossible, sell to the independent voters who usually decide general elections.
The independent fact-check organization PolitiFact.com has analyzed 21 of Bachmann's recent political statements. It found 16 to be false, including her promotion of an online whopper that an Obama trip to India cost "$200 million a day."
Five of her statements were found to be barely true or half true, including an assertion that the federal government "tells us which light bulbs to buy."
"Most objective political observers believe she represents the only district in Minnesota that would elect her," says Tom Horner, the moderate former Republican who ran for governor last year as an independent in a three-way race won by Democrat Mark Dayton.
"There is no viable path for her to the U.S. Senate, or the governor's mansion," Horner says. "She's a person who wants to have a higher profile
and is not satisfied with being one out of 435" in the House.
But even Minnesota critics like Horner and Penny, who describes Bachmann's legislative achievements as "thin gruel," say the congresswoman will be a factor in the GOP race.
"She stepped in where Palin left off," Penny says. "She's riding a publicity wave."
In Her Shadow
Bachmann's unexpected rise and the White House noises being made by Trump have left Pawlenty struggling for attention.
He was on Sen. John McCain's short list for vice president in 2008, and he announced last week that he'll be putting out his own national budget plan as an alternative to proposals from Obama and the House Republicans.
But he's facing an organized and growing chorus of criticism back home, where he left office in January with approval ratings south of 50 percent and a state budget deficit projected at $5 billion. The former governor has repeatedly blamed Democrats in the Legislature for the deficit, one of the worst in the nation.
Pawlenty's critics now include moderate Republicans, including former Gov. Arne Carlson. On Friday, Carlson was quoted in a MinnPost.com column as blaming Pawlenty for relying on budget-balancing gimmicks while governor, leading to record deficits.
Carlson, who backed Obama in 2008, was one of 18 prominent Republicans banned from party events after they supported Horner in the last gubernatorial election over GOP nominee Tom Emmer, a Tea Party favorite.
Strategists in Minnesota say Pawlenty, who accepted federal stimulus money he has criticized, is a smart and gifted politician, but lacking in a big idea or big accomplishment from his years leading the state.
"This is a guy who was blessed with a lot of skill but didn't take on airs," says Georgacas, the St. Paul strategist. "He can be one of the most engaging and down-to-earth public figures that I've ever met."
As governor, Pawlenty did hold the line on taxes, which has broad appeal in the GOP. In his last days in the state house, he joined a lawsuit against Obama's health care overhaul legislation. And he points to medical cost-saving measures he instituted in Minnesota, but analysts say it's too early to assess their success.
He is pitching his biggest selling point — fiscal conservatism, and a persona that is more heck than hellfire. But he's having trouble getting traction in national polls.
Bachmann is an even longer shot, but her presence has already had an effect on the political equation.
"There is no question that she has significant appeal with a large number of activists in the Republican Party," says Mike Erlandson, former chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
"She has feet on the ground and money in the bank," he said. "I don't think anybody can discount her ability to influence this race."
Lining It Up
Pawlenty has already written his obligatory pre-presidential political memoir, and Bachmann says she is contemplating her own.
In January, Bachmann gave her own Tea Party speech in response to the president's State of the Union address.
Though she is seen by critics as a legislator whose influence lies not in legislating but in a sound-bite personality, she has, Penny says, "kept watering those grass roots to keep them green."
But last week, she distanced herself from an issue that energizes many of her supporters, saying she
considers the issue of the president's birthplace settled.
After GMA's George Stephanopoulos showed her a document certifying Obama's birth in Hawaii, she said, "I take the president at his word. ... We're done. Move on."
There is no question that both Bachmann and Pawlenty face a steep challenge. No Minnesotan has ever won the White House — and the only vice presidents from there were Democrats: Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, who both were nominated for the top job but lost.
"It's an uphill race coming from Minnesota as a Republican," says Vic Ellison, who, as mayor of Eagan, Minn., in the 1980s recruited a young Pawlenty to serve on a local planning commission.
But the GOP field is so volatile that almost any potential candidate has hope, even the Gopher State long shots.
"Trump has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room, but the field is still wide open," says Erlandson, the former state Democratic leader. "Nobody clearly has any constituency or state locked down enough to have the momentum to go all the way." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.