SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) – Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty sharply criticized President Obama on issues ranging from health care reform to foreign policy Thursday, urging Republicans to challenge the president in a speech that was seen as a step toward a possible presidential run in 2012.
"It is time we stand up to President Obama," Pawlenty said in a speech to members of the Republican National Committee meeting here in this West Coast city. "It is time we stand up for our principles, and it is time we stand up for the American people."
Unlike fellow Republican Sarah Palin, Pawlenty is not new to national politics. He is a two-term governor, former head of the National Governors Association, and was on the short list to be Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate in 2008.
But Pawlenty is still relatively unknown, even within his own party.
Over the past few years, Pawlenty has been overshadowed by the more dominant personalities in the GOP, such as former Alaska Gov. Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and a handful of unsuccessful 2008 presidential hopefuls, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
In an interview Thursday, Pawlenty did not rule out a potential run for the Republican nomination in 2012, but he didn't rule it in either.
"I don't know what the future holds for me," he told CNN shortly before delivering his speech.
Instead, the governor said, Republicans need to concentrate on the near term - the 2009 and 2010 elections - and not the presidential race. "Everyone should be focused on 2010," Pawlenty said, adding that not to do so would be a "great disservice to the party."
Still, Pawlenty is doing all the things a potential presidential candidate would do, and needs to do, to be taken seriously by GOP primary voters.
He recently accepted a leadership role in the Republican Governors Association - a position that will have him traveling across the country for the next 15 months to try and help elect GOP governors. The RGA position also gives him the opportunity to build a national political network, the kind of infrastructure he would need if he does decide to run for the GOP nomination. Pawlenty is also helping state Republican parties raise money, and for the past six months he has appeared at critically important political gatherings such as the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. In a few months, Pawlenty will speak at the West Coast version of CPAC.
For the past 24 hours, though, Pawlenty spent his time focusing on the core group of Republican Party insiders meeting here in San Diego. A Pawlenty advisor described Thursday's speech as an opportunity for the governor "to introduce himself to an important group of Republican leaders and lay out the case for why President Obama's policies are taking America in the wrong direction."
In addition to the speech, the Minnesota governor held private meetings with dozens of RNC members, including a small dinner with influential Republicans Wednesday evening, including Kevin DeWine of Ohio, Jim Greer of Florida and Dick Wadhams of Colorado.
Pawlenty acknowledged in the interview that his national profile has been shaped by his policy work, not politics. But the Minnesota governor said that is changing.
"I do believe our party, my party, needs to do a better job" of explaining the GOP's goals, he said. "I have some ideas, and I am going to speak about them in Minnesota and across the country and help elect Republicans in 2010."
As for the state of the Republican Party, Pawlenty said he thinks that the GOP is no longer in a freefall, yet he said there still is a "long way to go" as the party rebuilds following the 2008 election when it lost the White House and additional seats in the House and Senate.
The Minnesota governor's political stock has been on the rise over the past seven months as that of several of his potential rivals - individuals who were considered the next generation of GOP leaders - has dropped. Palin remains a lightning rod for critics; South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford recently acknowledged an extramarital affair; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal failed to meet expectations earlier this year in his nationally televised response to Obama's address to Congress; and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman accepted the offer to be Obama's ambassador to China.
A new face for the Republican Party? No. A fresh face? Yes. But Pawlenty does have work to do. He polled in the low single digits in a recent Gallup Poll of potential Republican presidential candidates.
Pawlenty closed his remarks Thursday criticizing Obama's approach to foreign policy and emphasizing the need for the GOP to return to "conservative principles."
The speech drew RNC members to their feet - a standing ovation. Not a bad introduction to the GOP establishment.