AMES, Iowa — It’s time to get the debate started, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in a campaign stop in Ames two days ahead of the first debate of the 2012 race for the Republican nomination for president.

“It’s May of 2011. The election is in less than a year-and-a-half,” Pawlenty said after speaking Tuesday to about 60 people at Pizza Ranch in Ames.

The Republican nominee will face an incumbent president who is likely to raise $1 billion for the campaign.

“If someone’s going to take him on, and if that’s going to be me, we need to engage him now, we need to engage him directly, to have the debate, clear and decisively,” he said. “We need to get off the sideline and begin to make the specific case why the country should replace President Obama and make one of the Republican 2012 candidates, hopefully me, that person.”

It will be a small debate without some of the presumed frontrunners.

In addition to Pawlenty, other candidate in the Greenville, S.C., debate sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and hosted by Fox News Channel will be Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and conservative radio host Herman Cain. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich have chosen not to debate.

Pawlenty won’t present himself as the “loudest or craziest” person in the race.

“I think what people are looking for post-Obama is a steady hand on the throttle,” he said. “If people are looking for the loudest or craziest person in the race, they should vote for someone else. That won’t be me. If they are looking for someone who has thoughtful, measured approach and a record of results, they should support my candidacy.”

Pawlenty has a number of stops scheduled on this Iowa visit and plans to “compete vigorously” for support in the February 2012 precinct caucuses, which he called the “opening salvo in the race.”

However, he discounted the idea that he has to do well in Iowa because he’s from a neighboring state.

“I don’t think people vote by ZIP code,” he said, adding that the “next door” factor “is generally overstated.”

He’ll spend a lot of time in Iowa because “it seems to me in Iowa, meeting people and retail politicking matters.”

“Part of the process is showing up and getting acquainted,” Pawlenty said. “Midwesterners, in particular, like to get acquainted with each other before making a commitment.”

The Iowa Democratic Party would like Iowans to get acquainted with Pawlenty’s “failed fiscal record” as a two-term governor.

“Candidate Pawlenty has a lot of explaining to do if he’s going to reconcile his rhetoric on the campaign trail with his record of raising taxes on 90 percent of Minnesotans and leaving the state with the biggest deficit on record,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said.

For more on Pawlenty’s schedule, visit: