The looming specter of Tim Pawlenty in this year's governor race has prompted one GOP front-runner to go on the attack.
Jeff Johnson, who won the Republican precinct caucus straw poll of Minnesota gubernatorial candidates last month, is conscious that former governor Tim Pawlenty is mulling another run.
Johnson – a Hennepin County Commissioner who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014 – has struck a blow even before Pawlenty has made a final decision.
He tells GOPers that selecting Pawlenty as the GOP candidate would make this election a referendum on him.
"If Tim's our candidate, no matter how much he talks about the future, this election will be about the past," he says.
"Whether it's his D.C. lobbying job, or his presidential run or his attacks on Donald Trump, or the many things people will pick apart about his governorship, this campaign will be a referendum on Tim Pawlenty and not about our future."
Johnson then seeks to differentiate himself from Pawlenty, noting that unlike the former governor, he's spent the past year traveling Minnesota communities as he prepared his run.
Johnson backs Trump, unlike Pawlenty
He's also setting himself apart from Pawlenty by noting he has backed President Trump from the start, saying the voters "know I support our president, and did before his election, not just after."
An establishment-leaning Republican, Pawlenty has been a vocal critic of Trump in the recent past.
He notably dropped his support for Trump a month before the 2016 elections following the release of the "Access Hollywood" tapes, calling the then candidate "unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit" to be president.
With Johnson firmly in the Trump camp and Pawlenty a critic, the Republican gubernatorial primaries could also give an indication of the mood among Minnesota GOP voters towards the president.