"At a young age, I saw up close the face of challenge, the face of hardship and the face of job loss," the Republican said in a two-minute video message designed to appeal to tea party activists and GOP rank and file facing economic insecurity.
"Over the last year I've traveled to nearly every state in the country and I know many Americans are feeling that way today. I know that feeling. I lived it. But there is a brighter future for America."
The optimistic note harkened to another upbeat politician: President Barack Obama, who ran on the message of hope and change in 2008.
Pawlenty's announcement of the exploratory committee almost certainly will lead to a full-blown candidacy for the GOP nomination in a field that has been slow to form. The winner would face the daunting task of unseating an incumbent president.
"We, the people of the United States, will take back our government. This is our country. Our founding fathers created it," Pawlenty said in the Hollywood-style video that featured a soaring soundtrack.
"Americans embraced it. Ronald Reagan personified it. And Lincoln stood courageously to protect it. That's why today, I'm announcing the formation of an exploratory committee to run for president of the United States. Join the team and together we'll restore America."
It was the first definitive statement from a potential 2012 candidate on his or her White House campaign.
The Republican presidential field has been slow to form compared to past election cycles as familiar names such as Sarah Palin mull bids and other potential hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich work behind the scenes on their candidacies. The harsh media spotlight and the expense of a full-scale campaign operation deterred Republicans from early announcements in the expected race against Obama, who is certain to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
"At this point, the clock is ticking. They've got less than a year," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist who is a veteran of presidential primaries.
"The first votes are going to be cast in 10 months and it's a lot of work to build an organization in Iowa and raise the money to start to develop your message. Ten months isn't that much time." The first Republican presidential debate is just a few weeks away on May 2 in California.
Pawlenty, a conservative Republican who ran a Democratic-leaning state for two terms, has methodically moved toward a national campaign since announcing in 2009 that he wouldn't seek a third term. Since then, he stepped up his travel to early contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, recruited Republican aides with presidential campaign experience, and courted GOP donors.
Pawlenty's advisers are banking on a strong showing in Iowa to propel him through other critical primary states. He has made near monthly visits to Iowa since last summer and is due there the first two days of April. His next New Hampshire stop is scheduled for April 15, when he'll take part in a tea party-sponsored tax day rally.
Pawlenty has made overtures to the fiscal conservatives and tea partyers whose top concerns are Washington spending and the national debt, as well as the social conservatives who oppose abortion and gay rights and hold sway in the leadoff Iowa caucuses. His efforts to appeal to a broad swath of the Republican Party signal that he's trying to cast himself as a candidate who every party member can back.
Pawlenty's biggest hurdle to the nomination may be that he's far less well-known nationally than other Republicans who are expected to run. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month found roughly six in 10 voters had no opinion of Pawlenty.
His limited national profile - despite being on GOP nominee John McCain's short list for vice president in 2008 - may make it difficult to raise the millions of dollars needed to wage a credible campaign and build a strong operation.
All-but-declared candidates have started to assemble advisers and staff, yet aren't rushing into the fray. Gingrich has announced he is weighing a run but hasn't yet declared. Romney advisers say not to expect his announcement this month. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour says he will wait until his state legislature completes its work in April.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's term as the United States' ambassador to China ends at the end of April and his supporters are planning a May announcement.
Others, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are calling activists in the early nominating states but have not yet made a public declaration.
Pawlenty, 50, was raised in a Minnesota meatpacking town, the son of a truck-driving father and a mother who died of cancer when he was a teen. He worked in a grocery to pay his way through college.
He began his political career on a suburban planning commission and the Eagan city council. He spent 10 years in the Minnesota House, serving as majority leader before becoming governor in 2002.
Pawlenty styled himself as a no-new-taxes governor, swatting down bill after bill that boosted state taxes. He didn't take as hard a line on fees, and he consented to a 75-cent-per-pack "health impact fee" on cigarettes to end a partial government shutdown one year.
He signed legislation further restricting abortions and making concealed weapons permits more widely available, but social issues were hardly a centerpiece of his tenure. Pawlenty has added emphasis to his record on such issues as he moved toward a presidential run. His autobiography, released in January, was heavy on Bible references and traced his shift from Catholicism to evangelicalism.
Pawlenty still fits in the occasional pickup hockey game, as he did in New Hampshire recently while wearing a "T-Paw 12" jersey. He has a couple of marathon finishes, training alongside his wife, Mary. The couple has two teenage daughters.