Tim Pawlenty made headlines this week when he made the non-announcement announcement that he was running for president. After telling Piers Morgan that he wouldn't play second fiddle to another candidate as vice president, his camp quickly backtracked saying Pawlenty is still in an exploratory phase and wasn't officially declaring his candidacy for 2012.
But don't get it twisted. Pawlenty is most certainly running for president, and so are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in every way that matters, at least for the purposes of the Federal Election Commission. The agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws cares about one thing. Money.
An "exploratory committee" is not something the FEC recognizes. It watches from afar, considering these individuals full-fledged candidates, even though a person does not have to file with the agency. And while there's the possibility that these campaigns could be misusing money from their PACS or taking out inappropriate loans (remember McCain in 2008?), their large staff of lawyers keeps the small, constrained FEC at bay. But you can bet that when THE official announcement is made - for the benefit of the media of course - the FEC will come knocking, looking to document every dollar spent and penny earned.
Small fry potential candidates like former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson or Rick Santorum have to take a decidedly different path to an official announcement. As Santorum just announced this week on Fox News, national newcomers and less wealthy individuals do something that the FEC does in fact recognize. It's called "testing the waters."
For all intents and purposes, testing the waters is very similar to forming an exploratory committee. It allows an individual to start raising money as a way of determining viability as a candidate. It does not require registration with the FEC either. It keeps these guys on the good side of the agency. Advance compliance if you will. It's saying, "I'm running around the country raising and spending money. I promise to account for all of it if I run." It keeps the FEC happy, and more importantly, it keeps the giant off their backs.
Current lawmakers -- like Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. - also tend to declare they will "test the waters." This has more to do with congressional ethics than anything else. Sitting lawmakers probably have the most incentive to stay on the right side of the law when it comes to the FEC.