Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) took to Facebook Monday to announce that he's forming a presidential exploratory committee, a critical fundraising vehicle that's essentially the penultimate step to an actual White House bid. (Watch his announcement video.) Pawlenty is still unknown to many Americans, but in what is being called a historically weak Republican field, Pawlenty stands out for his lack of political baggage and solid conservative credentials. Is "T-Paw" well-positioned for 2012?

He's off to a good start: "I think Pawlenty has run the most impressive operation of the potential Republican presidential candidates," says John Anzalone, a Democratic consultant, at Politico. He may not be a household name yet, but "he has played the insider game about as well as you can over the last three months...." Boosting his odds: The lack of focus from potential rival Mitt Romney, who "just can’t seem to find a message or image he wants to commit to."
"Can Pawlenty win the White House?"

Pawlenty may be the best of a bad bunch: There's a lot to dislike about Pawlenty, says Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly. He is a "dull and uninspiring character" who has a "very thin record for a two-term governor." Worse, "he isn't well liked in his own state" and "has no meaningful areas of expertise in any subject." And yet, Pawlenty may be "just inoffensive enough" to win over disparate strands of the Republican electorate. The rest of the GOP field is "so deeply flawed" that he could end up being the nominee by default.
"And then there was one"

Being the first one in helps: The exploratory committee will help Pawlenty raise money and hire more staffers, says Linda Feldman at The Christian Science Monitor. And compare Pawlenty's relative decisiveness to Newt Gingrich, who's lost momentum by waffling about whether to throw his hat in the ring. Pawlenty may also get "a boost from the free media that comes with being first."
"Tim Pawlenty to form an exploratory committee: Will being the first help?"