Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- With much of the political world focused on a major GOP gathering in the South, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty gave a conservative audience in the North a chance to see potential presidential candidates side-by-side.
During their joint appearance in Minnesota, the pair heaped praise on one another and did their best to mask a budding rivalry as both gear up for likely 2012 presidential campaigns. Romney and Pawlenty doubled up on their criticism of President Barack Obama's policies.
"Washington is smothering the American dream and we must not let Washington do it," Romney told the estimated 500 people at the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota dinner.
In his remarks, Pawlenty ran down a litany of changes under Obama he said were leading the country in the wrong direction.
"We now have companies that are too big to fail. We have a federal government that is too big to succeed. We have government debt that is too big to pay off," Pawlenty said. "And we have national leaders who are too small to do anything about it."
It was the second big event this week in Minnesota featuring a potential 2012 candidate. On Wednesday, Pawlenty joined former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in addressing a Minneapolis rally that drew 10,000 people. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is due in the state April 26.
At Friday's gathering, Romney and Pawlenty commiserated about being conservative leaders in states with long-standing liberal reputations -- Massachusetts for Romney and Minnesota for Pawlenty.
The two were part of the same freshmen class of governors when both were elected in 2002. Romney left office after a single term; Pawlenty is walking away when his second term ends in January. Both are traveling the country and making other moves that point to likely White House bids.
Republican strategist Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman who has advised both Romney and Pawlenty, said the attention on the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans as a presidential preview was misplaced.
"They've got the right river, but they may be at the wrong end," Weber said, referencing the Mississippi River that starts in Minnesota and ends in Louisiana.
Donors paid between $30 and $5,000 to attend the Minnesota event, with money going to the group. Organizers wouldn't say how much was raised.
Democrats taunted the potential Republican rivals, noting Pawlenty has aggressively swiped at a Massachusetts health law enacted under Romney that requires individuals to buy health insurance and imposes tax penalties on those who don't. Pawlenty has said it resembles the new federal insurance requirement approved as part of Obama's health overhaul.
"In recent weeks there's been no bigger critic of Mitt Romney than Tim Pawlenty," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Frank Benenati. "I can imagine today they're going to be acting like they've been best friends since grade school. Behind the scenes, I'm sure it's going to be a different story."
Pawlenty made only a glancing reference to the new federal health law in his remarks and didn't bring up the individual insurance requirement that has irritated conservatives.
Romney called the health law "an outrageous grab of power from the states and from the American people." He didn't mention the law enacted when he was governor.
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