By Don Davis
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - The speculation is almost over.
For months, political observers have been preoccupied about whether Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty will be John McCain's running mate, but the Republican presidential candidate's campaign did its best to keep the decision secret - and pundits chattering about it - as long as possible. McCain and his running mate are to appear together in Dayton, Ohio, at 11 a.m. Central time today.
Reports out of Denver - where Pawlenty was fronting the McCain campaign's reaction to the Democratic National Convention - indicated Pawlenty abruptly canceled scheduled television interviews and flew out earlier than planned. That set up a new round of speculation on cable news channels that he would be the pick.
However, while much of the 11th-hour speculation centered on Pawlenty, other would-be vice presidential candidates also were reported to be opening their Friday schedules. That led to speculation that many major Republicans would appear with McCain in Dayton.
Others said to be high on McCain's list included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, ex-Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.
Pawlenty, a 47-year-old who serves as a national McCain campaign co-chairman, is a long-time McCain friend who remained loyal to the Arizona Republican senator even when his presidential campaign was faltering. McCain, who turns 72 today, often praises Pawlenty as the future of the Republican Party.
During a late Thursday morning Denver news conference, the governor said he is "scheduled" to be at the Minnesota State Fair Friday, but he emphasized the word "scheduled." At about that time, McCain was telling a radio interviewer that he had not decided on a running mate.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said Pawlenty's Friday schedule remained as earlier set: "He is planning to do the radio show at the fair tomorrow."
Pawlenty's official schedule, issued late Thursday afternoon, said he would be at the fair this morning for his weekly radio show.
At the Denver news conference, and a later conference telephone call with reporters, Pawlenty said Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is not qualified to be president. But most reporters' questions centered on the vice presidential situation; he avoided answering them.
U.S. Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., would not discuss specifics, either, but said about people mentioned for the GOP vice presidential spot: "Every one of them has significantly more life experience than Barack Obama."
Pawlenty said he has six years behind him as governor as well as a decade in the state House, hinting that gives him a better background than Obama.
"Does the person have the credentials, the wisdom, the judgment to be president of the United States?" Pawlenty said Americans should ask. He said the answer about Obama is his experience is "thin or nonexistent."
Both Pawlenty and Obama are 47 years old, but Pawlenty said that Obama's state legislative and brief U.S. Senate background do not qualify him to be president.
Pawlenty fields many questions every day about being McCain's running mate.
In recent months, he has been a regular on national television news programs touting McCain's candidacy. In addition, he has been a favorite speaker at Republican groups nationwide, and now is an up-and-coming GOP fundraiser.
When he announced his second governor campaign in May of 2006, reporters pressed him hard whether he would commit himself to remaining in office the full four years of his second term, citing rumors even then that he would be McCain's running mate. While at first he would not issue that firm commitment, after three questions on the subject he eventually promised to serve out the term.
Earlier this summer, he showed agitation when Minnesota reporters asked him about the subject, but usually delivered a line like "I'm happy with my day job." He showed no such anger when national reporters asked him the same question.
Then, on July 24, Pawlenty regained his cheerful nature. But he refused to talk about the vice president when reporters asked.
"You're kind to ask, but I have just stopped engaging in that discussion because it just feeds more speculation," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty also declined to say whether he plans to serve out the rest of his term as governor, a change for him. "I'm not going to engage in the (vice presidential) discussion any more until that is decided."
Now, it has been decided.