Concord, New Hampshire (CNN) - Tim Pawlenty's advisers reacted with pleasure at their boss's third place showing in last weekend's 2012 presidential straw poll conducted by the New Hampshire Republican Party.
It's a sign, they say, that the former Minnesota governor's frequent visits and organizational efforts in the first-in-the-nation primary state are paying some early dividends among GOP activists.
But Pawlenty acknowledged Monday during his sixth trip to the Granite State that he has a long, difficult road ahead before he can credibly be described a frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2012.
"I didn't run last time, so anybody that ran last time has some built-in name ID advantage, some legacy, infrastructure," Pawlenty told a handful of reporters after speaking at a fundraiser for the Merrimack County Republican Committee in Concord. "But we are making good progress. And I think, as history shows, there is more than enough room in these races for somebody who didn't run last time to build an organization."
Pawlenty denied that he was comparing himself to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who sought the nomination in 2008 and maintains a deep well of support in the Granite State as he plots a second White House bid.
But it wasn't hard to deduce that Pawlenty was setting up contrast between himself as a scrappy underdog and Romney as the early frontrunner with everything to lose.
"If you are a serious candidate, over time, then maybe everything will take care of itself," Pawlenty continued. "But we are not in that level of people who ran last time who've got built-in name ID and awareness and familiarity."
Pawlenty said he felt at home in New Hampshire – and not just because of the frigid temperatures. Factoring in wind chill, thermometers in the state hit 15 degrees below zero on Monday.
"It reminds me a lot of Minnesota in the sense that people are engaged," he said of New Hampshire. "They take the process seriously. They are informed. There are elements of New England and the Midwest, there are a lot of similarities. The people. The weather. So it's very comfortable for me."
Pawlenty also commented on the surprising fifth place finish in the straw poll by his fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is expressing interest in her own presidential bid.
"She is a strong leader," he said. "I know her. I have got a cordial, good relationship with her. Obviously she has risen as a leader of the Tea Party nationally, so if she chooses to run for president, I think she could be strong candidate."
As for Bachmann's plans to deliver her own response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday night via the Tea Party Express's web site, Pawlenty said she has every right to do so.
"It’s all good," he said. "It’s cool."
Monday’s event in Concord drew roughly 100 people and raised $3,500 for the county party organization, according to the group’s chairman, Leigh MacNeil.
Jack Kimball, the newly-elected chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, addressed the crowd before Pawlenty and vowed to "do everything in my power to bring everyone together." Kimball narrowly won his job on Saturday after a contentious campaign that pitted his Tea Party-aligned supporters against establishment figures who were backing Cheshire County GOP Chairwoman Juliana Bergeron.
Pawlenty will make two more appearances in New Hampshire on Tuesday, speaking to the New England Council's "Politics and Eggs" forum in Bedford and then signing copies of his new book, "Courage To Stand."