Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters )
Reporting from Washington — Tim Pawlenty and John Thune, two Midwesterners and possible 2012 presidential contenders, cast themselves as fiscal warriors before a receptive political action conference crowd Friday.
Pawlenty, the former two-term governor of Minnesota, is likely to jump in the race, perhaps soon. Thune, a senator from South Dakota who is relatively unknown nationally but viewed as a rising star in conservative circles, is less so.
Speaking to a record gathering at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, both decried what they termed a runaway expansion of government under President Barack Obama.
"We can't spend more than we take in," Pawlenty said. "You can't do it as an individual. You can't do it as a family. You can't do it as a business. And we can't let our government do it anymore."
"President Obama likes to talk about winning the future," Thune said. "But someone ought to tell him: You can't win the prosperity of tomorrow if you're mortgaging it to pay for the big government programs of today."
While both were received enthusiastically -- with the energetic Pawlenty drawing more cheers than the lower-key Thune -- neither could compete with Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian from Texas, who played to a rowdy, shouting crowd.
Paul was one of the few prominent speakers here to directly reference the crisis in Egypt, calling for an end of all U.S. foreign aid and for cutting military spending, deriding the "military-industrial complex" to loud whistles.
"We need to do a lot less a lot sooner not only in Egypt and around the world," he said.
In recent years, Paul supporters have flooded CPAC and last year, he won the presidential straw poll. "There is truly a revolution going on in this country, " he said. "We don't need to just change political parties, we need to change our philosophy of what this country is all about."
In comparison, Pawlenty and Thune presented themselves squarely as mainstream conservatives. Both focused on the federal debt and the growing deficit. Pawlenty, who gained a reputation as a budget hawk while governor, blasted Obama as a reckless spendthrift.
"Here's all you really need to know about government reform," he said. "On a given weekend, go to two weddings. Go to one where there's an open bar where the drinks are supposedly free. Then, go to another wedding with a cash bar where people pay for their own drinks. You'll see very, very different behaviors."
Unlike some other potential 2012 candidates, Pawlenty has a compelling personal story to tell. Growing up in a blue-collar family in St. Paul, Minn., he detailed how, as a teenager, his mother passed away and his father lost his job at a trucking company.
"At a young age, I saw up close the face of loss, the face of hardship, the face of losing a job and I saw in the mirror something else: the face of a very uncertain future," he said. "I know Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling ? I've lived it."
The affable and telegenic Thune poked fun at his low-profile nationally -- and perhaps tweaked Sarah Palin, who wasn't in attendance here, in the process. "I've never held a book signing. I've been to Iowa plenty of times, but it's usually on my way to South Dakota," he said. "And the closest I've come to being on a reality show is CSPAN's live coverage of the Senate floor."