By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty on Monday became the first high-profile Republican to show serious intent to enter the presidential election race against President Barack Obama in 2012.
Pawlenty, 50, announced in a flag-waving video on his Facebook page that he will set up a presidential exploratory committee, a formal step toward running for the Republican nomination.
"We, the people of the United States, will take back our government," he said in the two-minute video, which included references to Republican giants Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln.
Leaping into the fray ahead of his rivals gives Pawlenty some of the U.S. media attention that he needs to raise his national profile.
Obama is widely expected to run, and polls show him doing well against possible Republican candidates, although high unemployment and gas prices could hurt him if they continue into next year.
Pawlenty, a conservative who advocates a smaller U.S. government role in American life and deep cuts in public spending, has been traveling to early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to build support.
He said in the video that in his travels, he has seen the hardships Americans face.
"I know that feeling. I've lived it," he said. "But there is a brighter future for America. We know what we need to do: grow jobs, limit government spending and tackle entitlements."
A big question for Pawlenty is whether he will be able to raise enough money to compete aggressively in those three states.
Forming a presidential exploratory committee allows Pawlenty to raise money and hire staff and means he is all-but-certain to run for the Republican nomination in 2012 for the right to battle Obama.
Many analysts believe "T-Paw," as he is known to his loyalists, needs to do well in the Iowa straw poll of Republican voters in August and then win the state's caucuses next February to have a chance.
A mild-mannered speaker, Pawlenty will return to Iowa on April 1 and 2 and to New Hampshire in mid-April.
He was the first Republican to form an exploratory committee in the slow-to-start race for the party's nomination, but a number of potential candidates are expected to make the leap in the coming weeks and months.
Pawlenty has been trailing other rivals in public opinion surveys of Republicans, suggesting he has a lot of work to do to improve his name recognition.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said Pawlenty has a number of advantages.
For example, he does not have to spend time defending himself, as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has to do for the healthcare plan he developed for his home state and which Obama has cited as a model for his plan, which Republicans want to repeal.
"He may be the slow and steady candidate who doesn't have a huge controversial challenge in his past. All these other candidates have really big flaws they know they'll have to address directly," he said.
Pawlenty was 16 when his mother died of cancer and his father lost his job. He then went on to work his way through college and law school at the University of Minnesota.
As Minnesota governor from 2003 until this past January, he says he slashed a $4.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and has been a staunch voice against abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
But Democrats in Minnesota challenge Pawlenty's claim to be fiscally prudent.
"There's nothing in Tim Pawlenty's record that suggests he should get a promotion. Tim Pawlenty has failed at running the state he was supposed to lead at every turn -- and no amount of exploring will change that simple fact," said state party chairman Ken Martin."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)