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12 in 2012: Tim Pawlenty Skipped Over by McCain in '08, Set Up for Top Billing in 2012

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty took over the state's executive office in 2003, Minnesota was facing a more than $4 billion budget shortfall -- an amount that was nearly 20 percent of the state's budget.

Minnesota's left-leaning Legislature wanted to raise the state's gas, alcohol and income taxes, but Pawlenty refused. Instead, he scoured the books and cut the budget by $3 billion.

"I wish I could tell you it was all reaching across the aisle with some great bipartisan -- you know, charm and getting along. There was some of that. But a lot of it was just a hard slog. I mean we had shut downs, special sessions and lawsuits. I personally un-allotted $3 billion out of the budget myself," Pawlenty told Fox News.

Most of the cuts came from transportation, welfare and other state services. But it's that kind of effort that put Pawlenty on the Libertarian Cato Institute's list of only four governors in the country to earn a reputation as a "frugal budgeter." It’s also an achievement poll watchers are considering as they weigh the 2012 field for a Republican nominee to challenge President Obama.

Pawlenty had been on 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain's short list for a running mate, a position he ultimately lost to another up and coming governor, but being passed over hasn't hurt the governor.

While he hasn't explicitly said he is running for president in 2012, he looks to be making all the right moves, including hiring a staff in Iowa, the first caucus state and traveling frequently to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state in the U.S. presidential election cycle.

“I haven't decided that yet. I'm certainly open to it but I haven't ruled it in or out,” he said.

If Pawlenty does run, he’s already put in place a strong network of potential supporters. Aside from campaigning alongside many candidates, Pawlenty has three separate political action committees that have donated to 160 candidates nationwide this election cycle.

Suggesting he is a different kind of change from President Obama and the Democratic leadership that came to power in 2008, Pawlenty said he also sees differently a number of foreign policy issues, including the situation in the Middle East and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I've been to Iraq five times. I've been to Afghanistan three times. I've been all over the Middle East and been to China three times and led a number of other trade missions to other places around the world. But in my view, the number one issue facing the United States of America is making sure that America is secure and that we're respected around the world. President Obama sometimes seems to confuse that need and strategic objective with his desire to be popular,” he said.

Pawlenty said he also has concerns about the debt endangering America’s future. He said one item that should be on the chopping block is the new health care law

“ObamaCare is one of the worst pieces of legislation in the modern history of the country. It is going to increase-- healthcare spending, not decrease it. It's going to inflate the deficit, not decrease the deficit,” Pawlenty said.

But even if Pawlenty governs like the man to whom he wishes to be compared – Ronald Reagan – his star appeal and charisma are still wanting, a characteristic that Pawlenty acknowledges but says isn’t the most important factor in choosing a president.

“We've seen sizzle in the current president … There's a time in history where sometimes entertainment or, you know, drama is more important. There's other times when substance and track record and results are more important. And right now I'd put my record up against any governor in the country,” he said.

David Yepsen, chief political correspondent for The Des Moines Register and the go-to media watcher for all things Iowa presidential politics said being “vanilla” isn’t a bad thing.

“Vanilla is a popular choice of ice cream in America, and so when it comes to the presidency, people may like other candidates and may get more excited about other candidates. but when you look at who you want sitting in the Oval Office with their hand on the red button, you know, you tend to like candidates who come off as competent and cool,” he said.

Watch “Special Report With Bret Baier” at 6 p.m.. ET weekdays through Nov. 19 for the series “12 in 2012” -- profiles of potential GOP contenders for the White House.