Pawlenty's supporters start searching for the next Mr./Mrs. Right

Republicans who had backed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's (R) bid for the presidency see no natural GOP presidential candidate to inherit their support.

Pawlenty supporters — from staff and elected officials down to the rank and file — could end up staying on the sidelines until the Republican field becomes more clearly defined, mirroring the approach the former candidate seems poised to take.

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"There are an awful lot of people who will sit on the sidelines and wait to see how many candidates get in," said Jim Kurtenbach, a former co-chairman of the Iowa GOP who stepped down from that post to support Pawlenty.

Pawlenty's attempt to build a broader coalition of support could result in a group of voters who could fracture in their support for the remaining Republican candidates.

"It's possible that his supporters will endorse different candidates," said Alex Conant, the former spokesman for the campaign. "You've seen some of our supporters going to [former Utah Gov. Jon] Huntsman, going to Romney, going to [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry — even some to Ron Paul."

Pawlenty's supporters are clearly of value to the different candidates, all of whom have reached out to Pawlenty in the last week. But it's former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — whose healthcare plan Pawlenty tarred as "ObamneyCare" — who might be best positioned to win the bulk of Pawlenty's votes. Pawlenty supporters said that Romney shares the kind of broad appeal and electability Republicans valued in the former Minnesota governor.

Romney's relative absence in Iowa this cycle led some of his 2008 supporters to flock to Pawlenty, and his exit could send them right back to the former Massachusetts governor.

"I think some of the people will go to Gov. Romney — probably people who were with Gov. Romney last time, and wanted him to do more in Iowa," said Kurtenbach.

Pawlenty ended his White House bid last Sunday after a poor finish at the Ames straw poll, where he invested considerable resources, only to finish a distant third behind Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Supporters suggest his strategy for broader appeal — which might have made him competitive in the general election against President Obama — contributed to his undoing in a primary pining for candidates with a more aggressive tack toward Democrats.

"I do think that the party and the country is going through a period of real ideological polarization — especially in the Republican Party," said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a co-chairman of Pawlenty's erstwhile campaign. "Our argument for Tim Pawlenty was that he's a conservative who can reach out and unite the party. But the base wanted real high-octane, red-meat conservatism."

The former Pawlenty staffers are just as undecided as many supporters. All said they are watching and waiting before backing another contender.

"The appeal I felt was the successful service of Gov. Pawlenty as governor," said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), one of the few lawmakers outside of Minnesota to have endorsed Pawlenty. Wilson isn't endorsing another candidate yet but named Perry, Huntsman and Romney as examples of what he's looking for. "My previous position is to look at a gubernatorial record first, but I wouldn't at all exclude Michele Bachmann or a businessperson."

If there's any hope for the existing candidates to pull former Pawlenty voters, it might come in the form of an endorsement by the Minnesotan.

Pawlenty's taken some time off since his campaign ended in order to rest and move his daughter into college. Supporters who have spoken to him describe Pawlenty as being in good spirits, and taking some time to consider his future options (though he ruled out a 2012 Senate campaign last week).

He is likely to re-emerge next month and said he will probably endorse another candidate, though there's no timeline on that. Supporters describe Pawlenty as likely to campaign in the general election for whichever candidate wins the nomination.

"It will be a valuable endorsement given his ability to speak to all wings of the party," Conant said.

But Pawlenty's calculus will ultimately be the same as most Republicans': "At the end of the day there's a desire of Republicans to beat President Obama, and that will overcome their concerns about any of the candidates," Weber said.