By Steve Holland
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Tim Pawlenty, battling to break out of a pack of potential Republican presidential hopeful, touted himself on Wednesday as a leader who can restore America's economic glory and stop it from losing ground to China.
If the former Minnesota governor is to improve his name recognition among the large group of Republicans testing the 2012 waters, it will be by showing up in places like Ohio, a traditional battleground state still suffering from 9 percent unemployment.
Pawlenty has a lot of work to do against several better-known Republicans, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who may battle for the right to oppose President Barack Obama in 2012.
Pawlenty is presenting himself as someone who can unite the disparate fiscal and social wings of Republican conservatives. He espouses common-sense Midwestern values of hard work and thriftiness, saying he rose from hard beginnings to become the Republican governor of a typically Democratic state.
"I think I'm the one candidate in the race who can unite the entire conservative movement and still appeal to the general public and win the general election," he told reporters in advance of a dinner speech.
At a Cuyahoga County Republican Party dinner, Pawlenty brought up American concerns that the debt-ridden country is losing its global economic leadership role to China, a prospect he found worrying.
"Our place as the United States of America is not lagging behind China or anyone else in anything," he said. "Our place is to lead the world in everything."
He belittled Obama for declaring Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi "must go" but not setting in motion a plan to make that happen and said he would support arming Libyan rebels.
"We can't have a situation where we say Gaddafi must go and then he sticks around," he told Reuters after his speech.
Pawlenty, 50, has a 41 percent name recognition among Republicans surveyed by Gallup, way behind such other Republicans as Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
But it's early in the campaign season with Republicans just now starting to sort out who they might like to represent the party against Obama in November 2012 and the first voting contests -- in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- do not take place until early next year.
The Republican campaign is off to such a slow start that a presidential debate for the candidate scheduled on May 2 at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, was postponed until September.
"I've got a blue-collar background, a Reagan Democrat background, a lunch bucket, get-your-hands-dirty kind of background that I think is going to appeal in places like Ohio," Pawlenty said.
Participants at the Cuyahoga County event came to hear more about Pawlenty, who got some media buzz last week when he announced he has formed a presidential exploratory committee, the only prominent Republican so far to take that formal step toward a campaign.
"I really don't know much about him," said Myron Pakush, a Republican from Rocky River, Ohio. "I think we, as Republicans, should be really open to hearing people's ideas and approaches. We should let the process play out."
Andrew Konkoly of Lyndhurst, Ohio, said he liked Pawlenty's preference in sports.
"I'm a hockey nut and apparently he played hockey. That's a plus," he said.
And Rebecca Moseley said she liked Pawlenty's squeaky clean image.
"He reminds me of my son's scoutmaster," she said.
Political experts believe Pawlenty, who has a nice-guy image and offends no one but lacks pizzazz, will need to demonstrate strong fund-raising ability to compete in the early states.
"He needs a trademark issue, something that people will associate with him, that will help brand him," said political analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report in Washington.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)