ROSEVILLE -- On precinct caucus night earlier this month, Tim Pawlenty, one of the Republican Party's rising stars, had a bit of a problem.
Pawlenty, the House majority leader, agreed to give back-to-back speeches at caucuses on opposite ends of the Twin Cities -- with little breathing room to make it across town. (He made it with a white-knuckle drive.)
A reporter asked Pawlenty whether the appearances were preparation for a gubernatorial bid in 2002. ''That's my mission in life,'' Pawlenty mumbled dismissively, staring at the floor.
Although he brushed aside the question, the 39-year-old lawyer -- smart, funny and media-savvy -- is ambitious, and he appears to be a serious contender. In a later interview he acknowledged that a ''chance to run for higher office would be very meaningful.''
Facts about Tim Pawlenty
NAME -- Tim Pawlenty.
AGE-BIRTH DATE -- 39; Nov. 27, 1960.
EDUCATION -- J.D., University of Minnesota Law School; B.A., University of Minnesota. South St. Paul High School.
EXPERIENCE -- Partner in Rider, Bennett, Egan, Arundel law firm in Minneapolis. Elected in 1992. Re-elected in 1994, 1996 and 1998. Began his career on the Eagan City Council and Eagan Planning Commission.
FAMILY -- Wife, Mary; two daughters, Anna and Mara.
And Pawlenty believes the time is now for a fresh GOP face at the head of the ticket. ''If I can't be that person, we've got to find somebody else to do it. The call is out there for a new generation of leaders,'' he said.
Pawlenty, in his fourth term and first as a floor leader, has become a force in the GOP majority alongside House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon, who often lets Pawlenty take the lead in handling reporters' questions.
For now, Pawlenty says he is focused on re-electing a Republican majority in the House in November, which would solidify his standing and set him up for a run at statewide office.
For a guy from a blue-collar background in South St. Paul, the lone Republican in a liberal family, Pawlenty would bring a lot of spark to a statewide campaign. He's young and energetic. He lives in the Twin Cities suburbs, which are fast becoming the power spot for statewide candidates.
Not least, he knows how to get into news stories.
''It's his job as majority leader to be out in front of the media and I think he's articulate and presents the party position cogently,'' said Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier. ''He also understands it may pave the way for the future.''
Pawlenty refers to traditional politicians as ''gas bags.'' He says, ''If you are a public figure and you are not quick and quippy and entertaining, you're not newsworthy.''
The only place Schier said Pawlenty might be lacking is in ''gravitas.''
That's about the worst thing anybody said about Pawlenty. He's considered to be a thoughtful, pragmatic politician who will break from his party when he believes it's right. He's a partner in a law firm, the husband of a Dakota County District Court judge, and the father of two young daughters.
Pawlenty works hard for balance in his life and wants more than success.
He says he wants to make a difference by trying to help those who need it while remaining true to his conservative beliefs. One example is the expanded tax deductions for charitable contributions he pushed in 1999.
Though he acknowledges it sounds corny, he says he believed in ''compassionate conservatism'' long before Texas Gov. George W. Bush embraced the slogan. When Pawlenty dropped his brief gubernatorial bid in 1998, he urged his party to stay conservative on fiscal issues, but to reach out to women, minorities, the poor and younger voters.
He said he was greatly influenced earlier this year by a book he read as he sat at his father's deathbed.
''Halftime: Changing Your Game Plan from Success to Significance,'' by Bob Buford, is a faith-based book that Pawlenty said challenged him to make a difference in people's lives.
''Anybody can do what I do. Any number of people can speak the rhetoric,'' Pawlenty said, referring to the tax-cutting script of the GOP.
His family roots help explain how he came to his beliefs.
Pawlenty grew up the fifth of five children in a German-Polish family in South St. Paul. His father was a truck driver; his mother was a homemaker who died of cancer when he was 16. His father lost his job a few years later, at age 50.
''It was a scary time in life, trying to figure out how we were going to pay the bills,'' Pawlenty said.
But he smiles as he talks about the old neighborhood, full of big, loyal families. ''I am grateful for it, even though it was not always easy,'' he said.
Pawlenty is the only Republican in his family. His more liberal siblings engage him in what he calls ''raucous'' debate when they're together.
Practicality led him to the GOP; he needed a job and saw in the newspaper that Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger was hiring interns.
But a sister told him he didn't have a chance because those jobs went to the rich kids. ''I got more determined and said, 'That can't be right,''' Pawlenty said.
A secretary from his neighborhood saw his application and saw to it that he was hired. Durenberger, who also was from South St. Paul, took a personal interest in the teen-ager who made photocopies and picked up his dry cleaning.
At the University of Minnesota, he joined the campus Republicans. ''They gave me a stack of Reagan brochures and told me to go to the West Bank,'' Pawlenty said.
Reagan remains a hero.
''The legacy of Reagan was, 'You can be a strong, bold leader and an agent of change without being a jerk,''' Pawlenty says.
He holds President Abraham Lincoln as another Republican model for freeing the slaves and taking the country into the Civil War over dignity and human rights.
''That is an incredibly bold, caring, compassionate, visionary thing he did and he saved this country,'' he says.
Those who know Pawlenty as a friend and adversary offer nothing but praise.
Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, often spars with him during floor debates, but calls him ''pragmatic'' rather than a staunch partisan.
''What I like about him is he seeks compromise and conciliation and doesn't try to turn things into big battles,'' Entenza said.
He believes Pawlenty is so good that he wishes him the best in a bid for higher office. ''As a Democrat, it would be easier to have a less effective majority leader,'' Entenza said.
David Housewright, a Pawlenty friend and mystery novelist from St. Paul, has played pickup hockey games with him for years. He thinks Pawlenty's character is evident in those games.
Although Pawlenty generally plays as a forward he works all the ice, helping out on defense and scooping the puck out of corners, Housewright said.
''You know he's going to be there. You know he's going to come back and help. He's going to play fundamental hockey,'' Housewright says. ''I think in many ways that's the way he is as a politician. He's looking to make it all come together.''
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