Yesterday while on a layover in the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, I had the good fortune of running into former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. After a quick introduction, I asked the question on everyone’s mind.

“If you’d known months ago how Bachmann, Perry and Cain would come and go, and how this race would settle into Mitt vs. Newt, would you have stuck around? Do you regret leaving?” .

His answer was passionate and principled. He explained that the question was based on a false premise. In his view, leaving the race wasn’t a choice, it was the only option. It wasn’t about whether he could win or lose the nomination, it was about paying the bills in pursuit of it. He admitted that he was surprised and disappointed that, even with the early exit, some debt had stacked up. But it was minimal compared to others.

Three times during our conversation he went back to the point of campaign debt. On principle, he was strongly opposed to running up big debts and hoping the fund raising would later take care of them. Of course it’s not just campaign debt he’s opposed to, and he made that abundantly clear, as well.

We also discussed the debates and the notion that they’ve played a bigger role in this race than previous campaigns. He thinks that’s a myth, and that with the exception of Perry, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the debates impacted the on-again-off-again challengers to Romney.

As for his personal choice, Pawlenty obviously believes Romney would make a great president. His endorsement isn’t a casual one, and I got the sense that Pawlenty truly believes Romney is the right horse for the track. I don’t think his decision to back Romney was based on promises of jobs, access or money, it was fixed to Pawlenty’s honest desire to defeat Obama. For him, Romney presents the best chance.

An hour later, as I sat on my plane heading home, I couldn’t help but think what a warm, polite and approachable man he was.

And, for that matter, how he might have made a great president.

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