ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor largely unknown outside his home state, on Monday became the first major Republican presidential candidate in a slow-to-gel GOP field, launching an exploratory committee for the 2012 race.
In a Hollywood-style web video designed to appeal to tea partyers and establishment Republicans alike, Pawlenty urged GOP backers to join him to "take back our government. This is our country."
"Today, I'm announcing the formation of an exploratory committee to run for president of the United States," Pawlenty said.
The move almost certainly will lead to a full-blown candidacy for the Republican nomination.
Pawlenty is taking the most concrete steps toward a White House run, raising money and announcing he will file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. Earlier in the day, he told allies he would base a presidential campaign in Minnesota.
Even so, he remains an unknown in a field that lacks a front-runner. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month found roughly six in 10 voters had no opinion of Pawlenty.
In the video, Pawlenty played up his humble roots and the challenges facing the country. He says he knows the pain facing Americans in this tough economy.
"At a young age, I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship and the face of job loss. Over the last year I've traveled to nearly every state in the country and I know many Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I lived it," Pawlenty said.
"But there is a brighter future for America."
Pawlenty, a conservative Republican who ran a Democratic-leaning state for two terms, has methodically moved toward a national campaign since announcing in 2009 that he wouldn't seek a third term. Since then, he stepped up his travel to early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, recruited Republican aides with presidential campaign experience, and courted GOP donors.
Pawlenty's advisers are banking on a strong showing in Iowa to propel him through other critical primary states. He has made near monthly visits to Iowa since last summer and is due there the first two days of April. His next New Hampshire stop is scheduled for April 15, when he'll take part in a tea party-sponsored tax day rally.
The Republican presidential field has been slow to form compared to past election cycles as familiar names such as Sarah Palin mull bids and other potential hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich work behind the scenes on their candidacies. The harsh media spotlight and the expense of a full-blown campaign operation deterred Republicans from early official announcements in the expected race against President Barack Obama, who is certain to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
Gingrich has said he is testing the waters, and the FEC makes no distinction between that step and an exploratory committee. However, Pawlenty's actions move him closer to an official announcement.
A top Pawlenty adviser, Phil Musser, urged supporters during a call earlier in the day to wait until April to make campaign donations so the money shows up in the fundraising report for the April-to-June period and not the one for the first three months of this year, when Pawlenty was on a book tour and not aggressively raising cash.