(CNN) – As he gets closer to officially deciding on a White House run, likely presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty is heaping praise on one potential rival in particular - Sarah Palin.
But the former Minnesota governor quickly adds he's not afraid of a candidacy from the GOP rock star - even though Palin's name recognition far surpasses his own.
"I don't think it's fair to say people are afraid of her," he told ABC's Nightline in an interview that aired Friday. "It's fair to say she is somebody who's got a lot of influence and can use it for good, if she chooses to."
Pawlenty, widely expected to throw his hat into the presidential run, also acknowledged he is little known beyond political circles and has a "long way to go" to match the energy that Palin has harnessed since she was tapped as the GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008.
"I've got a long way to go to get people to even know my name, much less worrying about whether I could beat, you know, the force of nature that is Sarah Palin," he said, adding that Palin "has the tools to" to mount a competitive presidential bid.
Pawlenty's comments about Palin were markedly more praiseworthy than his previous remarks about the possible candidacy of Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesota Republican who advisers said earlier this week is considering a run for president.
"Well, it's a free country. Anyone can run that's over the age of 35," he told Politics Daily's Matt Lewis Thursday. "I have respect for Michele Bachmann. I've had a cordial and positive relationship with her."
As for his own timing, Pawlenty told ABC he will make a final decision in March or April.