By BRIAN BAKST
First, a crop duster swooped over, temporarily drowning out the Minnesota governor's message about authenticity in politics. Then, cows began to moo, eliciting chuckles from the audience as Pawlenty talked about the economy.
The scene captured Pawlenty's broader challenge: Catching and keeping voters' attention in a place that plays a powerful role in culling fields of White House hopefuls.
Even though he hasn't declared a run for president — a decision he says won't come until 2011 — Pawlenty has been honing his delivery and attempting to connect with opinion leaders in Iowa. The three-day foray that began Saturday was something of a dress rehearsal for next year's run-up to the 2012 caucus, the first step in the nominating process.
The official purpose of Pawlenty's visit was to help Republicans on Iowa's fall ballot. The party needs seven more seats to gain control of the House and eight pickups to take the Senate. Pawlenty promoted local candidates at each stop and left most with a check from his political fund.
The trip came on the tail end of a carefully choreographed week. Pawlenty spent an hour fielding questions from political reporters in Washington on Monday and, a few days later, debuted a sleek video that recaps his modest upbringing in a stockyards town and gives his take on the country's problems.
The political die-hards who gave up a summer day to scope out their neighboring governor will likely be among those deciding the caucuses. Like Pawlenty, they're playing coy about their plans.
"Here, people don't make snap judgments. They don't give people their support right off the bat," said Jim Heavens, the Republican mayor of Dyersville. "Just one sashay through here will not get you a lot of votes. You have to keep coming back."
Fayette County GOP chairman Jim Kirkpatrick said Pawlenty would be on his short list, but "it's too early to pick one" candidate.
Other Republicans mentioned as potential challengers to Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012 include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Pawlenty is steadily building a presence in Iowa, with three trips featuring public appearances in the past nine months and two more on tap. His weekend entourage included the political director for former President George W. Bush, a past Iowa Republican Party chairman and the head of an influential anti-tax group. He also recently established an Iowa political fund to dole out money to local candidates, although early on all the money came from elsewhere.
Pawlenty also has raised more than $2.6 million for his national Freedom First PAC, which can be used to pay staff, cover travel or help other candidates. But an AP analysis of federal records showed only $2,000 of the contributions requiring detailed disclosure came from Iowa donors.
While Pawlenty sometimes gets knocked for his lackluster presentation in front of big audiences, he thrives in more intimate settings. His looser side showed Saturday during stops at a country club in Dubuque and the farm in Waverly.
Just shy of 6 feet 3 inches tall himself, Pawlenty climbed a chair and draped his arm around a 6-foot-10-inch state Senate candidate for a photo. He offered to fetch cold sodas from a kiddie pool for people sweating it out in the sun. When Kirkpatrick came looking for a picture, the governor noted the University of Iowa logo on his shirt and jokingly suggested someone with Iowa State gear balance the shot.
Similarly, Pawlenty is methodically working to navigate tricky currents within Iowa politics. His remarks at multiple events concentrated heavily on economic policy and calls to curb federal spending, but he made a point of fitting faith into the mix — a nod to the religious coalition that helped deliver Huckabee's 2008 caucus win.
"Let's remember, our rights and our privileges flow from our creator and not from our member of Congress," Pawlenty said at a fundraiser in Cedar Rapids.
Pawlenty, a member of a large evangelical church back home, attended services Sunday with a Republican activist. Advisers also confirmed the governor made an unpublicized trip to Iowa a few weeks ago to address a private gathering of pastors.
To assert credibility on foreign policy, he mentioned his recent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. America needs to project strength, he said, criticizing the Obama administration for scrapping Bush-era plans for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Such decisions send "messages of equivocation" to American allies, he said.
"We need to make sure there is no confusion about where we stand, what we stand for and who we stand with," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty's concentration on eastern Iowa recognizes the importance of the area in caucuses. Republican stalwart Cheryl Kramer, who owns a bed and breakfast in the area, backed Romney last time but is in search of a new candidate for 2012.
She cut to the chase with Pawlenty, telling him before all those gathered in a country club ballroom, "I know you're interested in running for president."
Pawlenty let the remark slide.
"He's got the saddle and the bridle on," Kramer said in an interview later, adding, "He's a good communicator. He connects well with people. You have to connect with people in order to get them to work for you, and I think he has that gift."