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Republican Tim Pawlenty says "leaning towards" 2012 race

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said on Tuesday he is leaning toward running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Pawlenty, interviewed on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown," gave the strongest hint yet that he plans to seek the nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.

Pawlenty has previously said he is seriously considering a run with a decision expected by the end of March.

"It's something I'm leaning toward," he said. "I'm seriously considering it. I just haven't made the final decision."

A large field of Republican candidates are expected to enter the contest. None of the major names have done so yet, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Pawlenty, who lacks the name recognition of some potential contenders like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, has been laying the groundwork for a campaign by visiting key states Iowa and New Hampshire and pushing a conservative theme of fiscal responsibility.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)