STRATHAM, N.H. — Dusk had settled in and mosquitoes had swarmed by the time Tim Pawlenty finished mingling with voters at a backyard reception. It was well after the GOP presidential candidate had promoted himself as an accomplished leader and took questions from the crowd.
"I need your help," the former Minnesota governor said at the recent gathering, appealing to Republicans in the state holding the first GOP presidential primary in 2012. "I want to make sure we have a chance to earn your support in these coming weeks and months."
An official candidate for less than a month, Pawlenty nonetheless has spent several years introducing himself to Republicans in backyards, living rooms and pizza parlors in New Hampshire and Iowa.
He's methodically built a campaign operation staffed with presidential campaign veterans. He's been workmanlike in courting the GOP establishment, the tea party and evangelicals who are an important part of the party base. It's a traditional labor-intensive strategy that his team hopes will turn the relatively obscure Midwesterner into the GOP presidential nominee.
"In fine Iowa fashion, he's taking a 'Field of Dreams' approach," said Robert Haus, a veteran Republican strategist. He's watched Pawlenty's "grind it out" approach to constructing a campaign and wooing fickle Republicans in the first states to hold nominating contests. "If you build it, they will come," Haus said.
So far, it's an open question what Pawlenty's one-voter-at-a-time approach has earned him.
In polls nationally and in early nominating states, he trails better-known candidates who haven't put in nearly the hours Pawlenty has in New Hampshire and Iowa. He acknowledges that he will raise less money than front-runner Mitt Romney and perhaps others when fundraising reports are released next month.
His rocky performance during a GOP debate in New Hampshire last Monday probably didn't help sway people who haven't decided which candidate to back. He was widely panned for shirking when given many chances to attack Romney on stage. A day earlier during a TV interview, he had criticized Romney for signing a health care measure as governor in Massachusetts that Obama then used as a model for the nationwide legislation.
By Thursday, Pawlenty was turning up the heat on Romney again in a TV interview and on Twitter, an unmistakable damage control effort.
Seven months before primary voting begins, Pawlenty and his team show no outward signs of worry about the payoff for all his hard work.
He dismisses early gauges of his popularity as unreliable given his newness to the national scene and the large number of undecided Republicans.
"This is a race not about the polls of this moment," he says.
Advisers say Pawlenty is building for the long haul and is content on forming one-on-one connections with voters in pivotal states.
"Our focus has not been trying to swing for the fences, but to not make unforced errors and hit steady singles," said senior Pawlenty adviser Phil Musser, a consultant to Romney in 2008. "The decision points are in the ninth inning, not the first."
At least at the Stratham event, Pawlenty's groundwork seemed to pay some dividends.
"He's sincere," said Beverly Barney, a Republican from Exeter who was leaning toward Romney when she arrived to the event but was gravitating toward supporting Pawlenty by the time she had left.
She spent the time in between chatting with Pawlenty, who clasped her hand as they spoke. Just six months ago, she didn't recognize Pawlenty when a Christmas card from his family landed in her mailbox. Now, after meeting him, she may vote for him.
Bedford business owner David Soutter came away impressed, too, though he wasn't ready to commit.
"He's good at eye contact and delivering the message. I think he'll catch on," Soutter said, adding that Pawlenty's networking strategy should serve him. "New Hampshire's not a state that goes for flash."
That may be good for Pawlenty, who has been dogged by a pizazz-free image.
His speeches, for instance, are rarely as memorable as those by rivals such as businessman Herman Cain and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Nor is he strongly identified with any one faction within the GOP, such as the tea party or socially conservative voters.
But Pawlenty is betting that enough Republicans will view him as an acceptable, if not ideal, candidate to take on Obama in next year's election. The two-term governor is introducing himself as a budget fixer who held down state taxes and made inroads on socially conservative policies in a place with a Democratic tradition.
In the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, Republicans Jane and Tim Niess, who own a bed and breakfast in Des Moines, say Pawlenty has intrigued them since they first saw him speak at an agriculture forum in 2004. They find his record attractive and appreciate the time he's invested in Iowa. They've seen him multiple times.
Even so, they haven't committed to him yet.
"We'd like our candidate to be able to excite people, too, and get them excited about staying engaged," she said. "That remains to be seen if he can get people excited and passionate about getting him elected."
He did just that as a Minnesota legislator and governor, often humbling foes with shrewd maneuvers and rhetorical jabs.
It's a side some observers wonder if he's suppressing as a presidential candidate.
"The Tim Pawlenty of old was perhaps more likely to use the acid-tipped epithet or characterization of a policy or person," said Chris Georgacas, a political ally since the 1980s and a top adviser in his first gubernatorial campaign. "It seems like he's almost trying to play it safe a little too much."
David Baird, a Republican from Adel, Iowa, doesn't mind.
He said he's backing Pawlenty because of his compelling life story and consistent resistance to higher taxes and spending in Minnesota, calling him "somebody who will have a broad appeal to people when they get to know him. Iowans are going to appreciate that he's an honest, genuine individual. He's not going to blow smoke."
Bakst reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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