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Pawlenty Trip Puts New Hampshire Back In Spotlight

The 2012 Republican field is arguably as wide open as any in recent cycles. So it's curious that Tim Pawlenty's visit to New Hampshire tonight is among the first by any would-be candidate this year, even if it is more than two years until the first-in-the-nation primary.

"People have been making phone calls, reminding people to keep their dance cards open," says Tom Rath, a Concord attorney and one of the state's leading Republican activists. "But I think in terms of an official opener, I think this is the first significant potential Republican candidate to come in for an event here since the election."

It is still early even by modern standards for the overt water-testing events White House hopefuls are expected to make. Mitt Romney, among the first candidates to visit in the 2008 cycle, made his debut at roughly the same point four years ago. But Iowa, another early nominating state, has already seen a visit from Pawlenty, two from Mike Huckabee, and others even from dark horses like Rick Santorum, George Pataki and Mike Pence.

Granite State Republicans give several explanations as to why that might be, starting with the immodest belief there that "the stakes are a little bit higher coming to New Hampshire" than any other state, former state Republican Party chair Fergus Cullen argued. When he presided over his final party gathering in January, efforts to attract would-be candidates were rebuffed because some thought a visit "carried too much import, and they weren't prepared to do anything like that at that time," he said.

Likely more of a factor is format of the contests themselves, as well as the profile of the electorate in each. Iowa's caucuses are more likely to be dominated by conservative activists with an emphasis on social issues. New Hampshire, where fiscal issues tend to be paramount, has an open primary that includes a significant independent bloc. And since Democrats will likely have just a token primary in 2012, moderate and even liberal-leaning independents will have a significant voice in that primary.

"Conservatives are a very important part of this party and have a significant presence here, but clearly the Iowa caucuses have skewed more in that direction," Rath said, noting Huckabee's caucus victory that preceded John McCain's second win in the Granite State.

It did not go unnoticed that Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" book tour included a stop in Iowa, but not New Hampshire. A Des Moines Register poll of potential caucus-goers put the former Alaska governor near the top of the heap, while a recent poll in New Hampshire found a more lukewarm reception.

"The Iowa caucus is so dominated by the evangelical portion of the Republican base, and if you're not going to be their darling, why even bother," Cullen would advise potential candidates.

The only other national political figure of note to visit New Hampshire this year was Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who attended a state party fundraiser in June. Former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, a Dartmouth alumnus, also visited recently to raise money for his own 2010 campaign.

Pawlenty's trip to New Hampshire is built around a fundraiser for the state Senate Republican PAC in Concord. Mike Dennehy, a McCain campaign alumnus who organized the event, said Pawlenty was invited with an eye to his potential candidacy in 2012.

"New Hampshire Republicans pride themselves on getting involved in presidential politics," he said. "Being a relatively small state governor, one who's balanced the budget, who's focused on education and a new Republican leader for this generation -- I think those are all things that people will be interested in seeing and hearing from him."

He'll come with a message well tailored to the state. An aide says he'll focus on the spending policies in Washington, while also emphasizing his personal story and view that Republicans need to do more to reach out to independents.

Pawlenty, who campaigned with McCain in the state in the 2008 cycle, is among the first to come because he certainly has more work to do than other candidates. Ted Gatsas, the mayor-elect of Manchester, noted that Pawlenty was among those who called to wish him well on his November election; he'll meet with him privately on Thursday while he's in the neighborhood as well. It's a debut that should serve him well.

"We're still the only state that somebody can come into without a lot of name recognition, without a lot of dollars, and meet people and start understanding what the political landscape is in New Hampshire," said Gatsas, adding that his door is open to any potential candidate at this point.

Dennehy said that while there's been some intrigue about Pawlenty's visit, presidential politics still is not "front-and-center" here. Beyond the holidays, state Republicans have a great deal on their plate in the new year, including a marquee open Senate race, battles for both Congressional seats, and efforts to win back local and state offices.

"In the leadup to the 2010 election cycle, any potential [presidential] candidates will probably be seen in New Hampshire helping out the party and helping out our 2010 local and federal candidates," said Ryan Williams, spokesman for the New Hampshire Republican Party.

Many of the big races feature hotly-contested primaries, and so 2012 candidates may only visit in earnest later on, and only in a surrogate role once those nominees are chosen. The full-fledged presidential campaign, therefore, will likely wait even longer still.

"It's hard to organize anything at a serious level in the middle of a big election year, and the midterms next year are big," Dennehy said.