Tim Pawlenty is ‘running for president.’ He just doesn’t want to formally admit it yet

Holly Bailey

Running for president has become such an elaborate press operation that it's sometimes hard for even the candidates to keep up.

Just ask Tim Pawlenty, who sounded a verbal miscue during an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan Tuesday night about whether or not he's actually running for president.

"I'm running for president," Pawlenty told CNN. "I'm not putting my hat in the ring rhetorically or ultimately for vice president so I'm focused on running for president."

The comments--a partial transcript of which was forwarded to reporters ahead of the actual broadcast of the interview--instantly made big news, given Pawlenty, technically, has filed only an "exploratory committee." It's a phrase that seems to imply the former Minnesota governor is still thinking about whether to mount a full-fledged run, even though it's fairly obvious he's very much in the 2012 race.

But Pawlenty's aides quickly tried to stamp down the story their boss was officially in the race, insisting that CNN had mischaracterized the ex-governor's comments. As evidence, they pointed to another segment in the interview in which he dialed back his initial claim.

"I've got an exploratory committee up and running, and we'll have a final or full announcement in the coming weeks here," Pawlenty added later. "It won't be too much longer, but everything is headed in that direction."

So why is his campaign going to such lengths to deny that Pawlenty, who has been eying a White House run for years, is actually running for president? Because presidential campaigns have increasingly become a show, packed with built-in events aimed at generating media attention for their candidate.

The irony is that while Pawlenty has filed an "exploratory committee," he is already legally a presidential candidate under Federal Election Commission rules, which don't distinguish between "exploratory" candidates and full-fledged campaigns.

Yet for Pawlenty and other 2012 hopefuls--including Mitt Romney, who filed his own "exploratory" effort Monday--the separate phases of a presidential campaign allows them to get as much press as possible for two separate events that are legally the same exact thing.

Sometimes candidates even go as far as to have more than two announcements. In 2004, John Kerry held a press event to announce his exploratory committee. Then he held an event to announce his formal campaign. Months later, he held another event to mark the re-launch of his formal campaign, just in case voters had missed it the first time around.

Ditto for John McCain, who held no less than five announcement events during the 2008 campaign--even though he had already been plotting a second White House bid for the better part of eight years, dating back to his 2000 GOP primary loss to George W. Bush.

The unfortunate thing for Pawlenty is that his honest admission--and let's face it, the Minnesota governor's supposed gaffe was a case of him actually telling the truth--focuses a spotlight on the sillier aspects of the behind-the-scenes plotting of a presidential bid, which proceeds every four years with the help of the media.

Most average people won't get why Pawlenty's aides tried so hard to knock down the story--especially when it's more likely than not the former Minnesota governor will ultimately "formally" admit in a few days or weeks that he's actually in the race.

(Photo of Pawlenty: David Greedy/Getty Images)