WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney were rivals, fighting to be Sen. John McCain's presidential running mate.
One year ago, Pawlenty and Romney were slugging it out on the presidential campaign trail, with Pawlenty taking potshots and Romney's money and record.
Now, Romney is the presumptive GOP nominee for president. And Pawlenty? The former Minnesota governor is back on the inside track for the No. 2 spot.
Pawlenty, one of the first ex-candidates to throw his support to Romney, suddenly finds himself ranked near the top of every shortlist being compiled by top Romney aides, Republican operatives and seasoned political observers.
"Pawlenty is on the super-shortlist," said one GOP strategist with connections to the Romney campaign.
For Pawlenty, 51, the national attention is a resurgence from the humiliation of the third-place finish in last summer's Iowa Straw Poll, which cut short his two-year quest for the White House.
But that experience also makes Pawlenty a battle-tested contender for a GOP campaign that feels no need to take chances against President Obama, a reliable spark for Republican anger who is at the helm of a still-sputtering economy.
Pawlenty critics say he lacks the pizzazz of others said to be under consideration, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But some analysts say Pawlenty is a safe bet for a Romney campaign that wants to make the election a referendum on Obama.
"This year, the goal is a double-dip cone of vanilla," said Larry Sabato, an influential political scholar at the University of Virginia. "Romney is clearly vanilla, and you don't want to mix in a competing flavor. You're going to have a second scoop of vanilla."
Sabato's weekly Crystal Ball scorecard Thursday rates Pawlenty's prospects second only to those of Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio. Portman is seen as a conventional pick who gets the edge mainly because he could help put a critically important state in Romney's column.
Few expect Pawlenty to deliver Minnesota. The state has produced two Democratic vice presidents in modern history and has not gone Republican in a presidential election since Richard Nixon won it in 1972. But as a former two-term GOP governor from a bluish state, Pawlenty is seen as an affable conservative who does not scare away the all-important swing voters.
Pawlenty has shifted from saying he'd be happy to serve Romney in any capacity to saying he would be "honored" to serve as vice president.
Other contenders include Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who gave the GOP a boost this month in an easy recall election victory. Also mentioned is Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, author of the GOP's main budget blueprint to reduce the national debt.
Another possibility, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, effectively is out of contention after trustees Thursday unanimously approved him as Purdue University's new president.
In the end, Pawlenty's chief virtue could be a lack of controversy, underscoring the political maxim that the main trick for the No. 2 spot is do no harm.