By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is expected on Monday to become the first high-profile Republican to show serious intent to enter the presidential election race against President Barack Obama in 2012.
An aide said Pawlenty, 50, plans to announce on his Facebook page that he will set up an exploratory committee, a formal step toward a running for the Republican nomination.
Leaping into the fray ahead of his rivals gives Pawlenty some of the U.S. media attention that he needs to improve his national profile.
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.
Forming a presidential exploratory committee allows Pawlenty to raise money and hire more staff and means he is all-but-certain to run for the Republican nomination in 2012 for the right to battle Obama.
A mild-mannered speaker, Pawlenty will return to Iowa on April 1 and 2 and to New Hampshire on April 15.
He will be 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.
"The question to me is, is he going to be able to raise enough money to really be aggressive in the first three or four states and can he continue to exceed expectations," Mackowiak 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 slashed a $4.3 billion budget deficit without raising taxes and has been a staunch voice against abortion and embryonic stem cell research.