Tim Pawlenty is governor of Minnesota no longer.
Having chosen in June not to seek re-election, Pawlenty has left the governor's mansion to his successor, Mark Dayton, who took office today as Minnesota's first Democratic governor in 20 years.
Which will leave ample time for Pawlenty to focus on what, we all assume, is his next step: running for president in 2012. And it will be a shock if Pawlenty doesn't run.
He's been raising money faster than a telemarketer for almost a year and a half. In October 2009, Pawlenty launched his Freedom First PAC (political action committee), the type of organization that allows politicians to raise and spend political cash without officially running for office. It's almost a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a presidential run to percolate.
Mitt Romney led the field of big-name presidential contenders in 2010 money ($5.2 million raised, $5.3 million spent), with Palin trailing in second ($3.2 million raised, $2.9 million spent), and Mike Huckabee lagging in a distant third ($944,00 raised, $941,000 spent). But Pawlenty's respectable haul of ducats ($2 million raised, $2.5 million spent) puts him in league with the Big Three.
The now-ex-governor has set up state-level PACs in Iowa and New Hampshire, a presidential power move that will let him raise, donate, and otherwise curry favor with state-level pols in those important primary states.
Pawlenty has undertaken a busy travel schedule, which drew the ire of Minnesota liberals who accused him of being an absent governor. He's visited Florida and South Carolina and made multiple trips to Iowa and New Hampshire.
Next Tuesday he'll release a book, "Courage to Stand" (via Tyndale House, a Christian publishing firm), which means more travel yet. His primary-flavored book tour will include stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Texas, and Ohio.
All of which means that, even if Pawlenty never submits the necessary Federal Election Commission paperwork and forms a presidential campaign committee, he's already reaping the benefits of a 2012 run: name recognition, media attention, new relationships and connections on the national GOP fundraising circuit, a prominent book deal, and a more weighty status in Republican political circles.
Pawlenty doesn't do very well in national 2012 polls. In late November, McClatchy Marist clocked him at 3 percent, far behind the leaders (Romney polled at 20 percent; Huckabee, at 16 percent; Palin, at 13 percent), behind even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (9 percent) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (5 percent), and neck-and-neck with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Former New York Gov. George Pataki.
That's pretty bad. But, if you listen to the buzz among political types around DC, Pawlenty is seen as a more probably contender. He appears serious about his 2012 ambitions. He's accrued credibility and name recognition among the Beltway political class, even as his national name-recognition numbers still sag. He's built an organization and a political framework for a serious bid, and he's logged the hours of legwork that the other names in his national-polling caste have not.
The question of whether Pawlenty will run for president, by now, has become anachronistic. He's already running.