In an announcement sure to drive speculation about a possible 2012 presidential run, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said today he will not run for reelection in 2010.
"When it comes to how long someone should stay in an elected position, a little less is better than too much," Pawlenty said in a statement. "…We don't have term limits in Minnesota, but we do have good judgment and common sense. We are a government of laws and ideas, not personalities."
Pawlenty, a two-term Republican first elected in 2002, made the announcement at an afternoon press conference. The governor, who is believed to have national political ambitions, has been caught in the middle of the interminable battle between Al Franken and Norm Coleman for one of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seat.
That case is now before the state's Supreme Court. Depending on the outcome, Pawlenty could be forced to choose sides between Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and Franken, Coleman's Democratic rival.
Franken has been declared the winner of the tight race, but Pawlenty has so far refused to sign an election certificate, saying Coleman has the right to exercise all of his legal options.
If Franken wins before the state Supreme Court, Pawlenty could conceivably still decline to sign an election certificate, since Coleman could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Doing so would anger voters in the state, who polling suggests have become increasingly frustrated with the dragged-out Senate battle.
If Pawlenty does sign the election certificate before he absolutely has to, however, he would anger national Republicans, who desperately want to keep Franken out of the Senate. (Franken's vote would effectively give Democrats the sixty seats they need for a filibuster-proof majority.) Pawlenty knows that his ability to raise money and buzz for a presidential run could be seriously hampered if national Republicans do not support him.
Today's announcement changes his calculus. Because he has decided not to run for reelection, Pawlenty does not need to worry about electoral fallout in his home state. And that means he is more likely to side with Coleman, pleasing national Republicans, than with Franken.
At his press conference today, Pawlenty said he is "going to do whatever the court says" regarding signing an election certificate, though it remains unclear whether he will be directed to do so if Franken wins.
Pawlenty also promised to keep working hard for his constituents at the press conference, saying he doesn't "lack for energy or putting energy towards being governor."
The governor's decision was likely, in part, a pragmatic one: Fifty-seven percent of Minnesotans say they'd be open to someone else as governor, though Pawlenty is still personally liked by voters. He insisted today that he "absolutely could have won and would have won a third term," despite polls that put that conviction in doubt.
Asked about a possible presidential run, Pawlenty said he is "not ruling anything in or out." He said he is focused on "being governor and we will see what comes next."
"This move is very similar to what former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., prior to his 2008 presidential run," said CBS News political director Steve Chaggaris. "Facing a potentially tough re-election in 2006, Romney elected to forgo that and set his sights on 2008. The figuring here is that he's in a much better position to run for president out of the governor's office on his own terms rather than fresh off a losing re-election campaign."
Pawlenty has steadfastly opposed tax hikes in his state, prompting praise from conservatives but anger from the state legislature, which holds him accountable for deep spending cuts, CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder points out. A moderate on environmental legislation and health care, he calls himself a "modern" Republican and has expressed disappointment with the direction of the GOP.
"If he runs for president, he presents an interesting choice to Republican primary voters, who are currently debating the future of the GOP," says Chaggaris. "Do they move to the right and get behind a hard-line conservative, potentially narrowing their appeal? Or will they be attracted to someone like Pawlenty, who is a hero among fiscal conservatives with his actions in Minnesota regarding lower taxes and spending, but has raised questions among the right with his moderate views on climate change, health care and education?"
Michelle Levi contributed reporting.