ST. PAUL , Minn. -- Two years ago, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was seen as a rising star in the Republican Party.
During the 2004 GOP National Convention, the influential conservative fund-raising group, Club for Growth, invited him to speak, and its president said Pawlenty should be on a national ticket in 2008 or 2012.
Pawlenty, 45, is charismatic, articulate and, according to his former chief of staff, "killer smart." His popularity ratings have been consistently high. He's next in line to chair the National Governors Association, and he helped persuade the Republican National Committee to hold the party's 2008 convention in Minnesota.
Now he's in the political fight of his life.
An early October poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed Pawlenty trailing his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Mike Hatch of the D.F.L. (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party), by nine points. Previous polls had the two in a dead heat. The Star Tribune poll was taken in the midst of the Washington scandal over former Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate e-mails to congressional pages.
"I think it's fair to say that nationally, this isn't exactly a sterling Republican year," Pawlenty said after a news conference last week. "The Foley scandal hurts, and I think there is a headwind coming out of Washington."
Pawlenty is hoping not to get caught up in an anti-Republican wave, and he's trying to keep the focus of his campaign on Minnesota. But with two weeks until Election Day, Pawlenty is among a handful of gubernatorial incumbents who polls show are vulnerable as Americans in 36 states elect new governors Nov. 7.
"I think we've done a good job under very, very challenging circumstances," Pawlenty said. "We've done a few things that in hindsight, I wish we would have done differently, but any time you go through a high-intensity, high-velocity experience, you're going to learn some things."
When Pawlenty took office in 2002, the state faced a $4.5 billion deficit. As a candidate, Pawlenty had signed a controversial pledge not to raise state taxes. The governor erased the deficit with a combination of spending cuts, accounting shifts, use of budget reserves and fee hikes. His handling of the budget largely has earned him praise from fiscal conservatives, while his critics say Pawlenty shifted the state's budget problems to local governments and higher education.
The state DFL party has been running television ads accusing Pawlenty of playing word games with his no-new-taxes pledge.
"Pawlenty pledged he wouldn't raise taxes," says a sneering announcer in one of the ads. "But his cuts to local government forced property taxes up a billion dollars. His cuts to state colleges forced tuition up 50 percent."
Hatch, Pawlenty's Democratic opponent, promises to roll back tuition hikes and hold the line on property taxes if elected.
Hatch, 57, is a two-term attorney general who garnered more votes than any other statewide candidate four years ago. He's somewhat of a comeback kid. Many political observers thought Hatch's political career was over after he lost two bids for governor in the 1990s. But as attorney general, Hatch has gained attention for taking on HMOs, insurance companies and utilities. It hasn't made him many friends in big business, but it's earned him a reputation as a fighter for the little guy, an image that plays well in a state with populist roots.
Hatch contends that Minnesotans are frustrated with what Pawlenty has done during his first term and that voters aren't hearing any good ideas for a second one.
"The governor has not come up with any real significant proposal," Hatch said. "What's he going to do in a second term? He's very capable of throwing the mud, which is fine and dandy, but people are reacting against it."
Pawlenty's ads have attacked Hatch as a big spender who would raise taxes by billions of dollars. Hatch said he doesn't plan to raise taxes, but Pawlenty said Hatch's spending promises add up to a multi-billion-dollar tax hike.
The two also have traded barbs over health care, education and public safety.
They've largely ignored the third major party candidate in the race, the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson . Hutchinson is trying to appeal to Minnesotans frustrated with partisan bickering, a sentiment that former Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura tapped in 1998.
Hutchinson has run TV ads featuring the former professional wrestler, now sporting a black pirate-like beard in skinny braids. "Career politicians will say anything to get re-elected," Ventura tells viewers in the ad. "In '98, you chose an independent. It's time to do it again. Let's stop the b.s. and move Minnesota forward with honesty and common sense."
But unlike Ventura, Hutchinson is a wonkish public-policy consultant who's running a distant third in the polls.
Hutchinson blames Pawlenty, in part, for Minnesota's first partial government shutdown last year. The governor and Legislature couldn't reach a budget deal by the start of the new fiscal year, and parts of state government shut down for eight days.
Pawlenty has just embarked on a tour he's calling "Driving Minnesota Forward" and plans to hit as many as 100 communities in a stylish silver-and-red van in the final two weeks before Election Day.
Pawlenty describes Minnesota as a purple state — a mix of Republican red and Democratic blue — that still leans Democratic, and sa id it continues to be an uphill battle for Republicans to win in the state.
"I really put my faith in the people of Minnesota, and I think they'll make the right decision," Pawlenty said.
Laura McCallum is the Capitol bureau chief for Minnesota Public Radio.