Arkansas doesn't have the political star power of Iowa or New Hampshire, but that isn't stopping potential 2012 presidential hopefuls from visiting.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty
popped into the state this week to meet with GOP elected officials and leaders. His journey to the land of former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee was the first this year for a likely GOP contender for the White House.
Pawlenty had no public events in Arkansas, but this wasn't about selling books
and giving a speech to the masses. Pawlenty's visit focused on networking and making big-money connections.
"Pawlenty has the gift of time and he's using some of that time to make connections in places that are in play -- or potentially in play," said Jay Barth, chairman of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. "Arkansas falls in the latter category if Huckabee stays out of the race or has to drop out if he fails in Iowa."
Pawlenty hosted a roundtable with new GOP elected officials and the party's state chairman. He then spoke to about 30 state executive committee members and party leaders about his vision for the country and answered questions. According to sources at the meeting, Pawlenty made it clear he is contemplating a presidential run, but has not yet reached a decision.
His presence in Arkansas certainly resonated with GOP leaders, who said privately that they viewed his visit as a salute to a state that gained more Republican federal and legislative seats in 2010 than it has ever had in the modern political era.
But Pawlenty's visit also underscored two other key points.
First, politicians pondering a presidential run aren't scared to trek into the turf of native son Huckabee
, who leads in some 2012 polls. Secondly, the state is also home to a lot of potential GOP cash.
Last year, Huckabee announced that he was moving to Florida
. In Arkansas, some Republicans saw the move as egotistical and a slap in the face to a state that had supported Huckabee, the longest serving Republican governor, at a time when Republicans had little power.
, who stays busy with many projects
, including a weekly show on Fox News, didn't turn his back on Arkansas. He appeared at a major campaign rally last fall for the GOP ticket and his Huck PAC supported many candidates in the midterm elections.
Huckabee has not had any public events this year in Arkansas. On his upcoming tour for his new book "A Simple Government
," Arkansas is not a scheduled stop
but several 2012 key states (Iowa, South Carolina and Florida) as well as Southern states that border Arkansas (Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi) are.
But Huckabee says he walks a fine line as a former governor coming in to meet with local politicians. He says he doesn't want people to think he is "butting in their business" at the state capitol.
"I try to keep a low profile in Arkansas because I don't feel it appropriate to get publicly involved in the goings on of state government," he told Politics Daily. "I have talked to friends there and would be delighted to talk with those who wanted my counsel, but I am not going to impose myself."
This week's visit was Pawlenty's second to Arkansas in less than two years. In June 2009, he spoke to 400 people at a fundraiser for the state Republican Party.
At this stage for candidates testing the presidential waters, it's about raising enough money to remain in the conversation and signing up major business leaders to be on a campaign team. Despite its low average income, Arkansas consistently rates near the top when it comes to the number of millionaires per capita and it is home to Wal-Mart
, Murphy Oil
, Tyson Foods and Stephens Inc
., to name a few high-profile companies.
Republican Lt. Governor Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, who died in 2006, was a billionaire oil heir and his widow, Lisenne, is still a generous donor to the Republican Party.
Stephens Group Inc., and the Stephens family, have been a major player in national politics. Last October, Stephens Investments Holdings LLC gave $100,000 to American Crossroads
, a 527 organization that defends and elects "center-right candidates to federal office."
Even if Pawlenty chooses not to run for president, which is looking ever less likely, the connections that he develops on his journeys -- next week he hits the Tea Party Summit
in Phoenix -- will only help his Freedom First PAC
and book sales.
And as for Arkansas, it will probably not be a 2012 battleground state, but it could play an oversized role in the the political money game.