With six months to go before any votes are cast, it seems frightfully premature for any of the candidates to be written off. Yet that is exactly what is happening to Tim Pawlenty. Both Bloomberg and the New York Times weigh in today with pieces that frankly state if the former Minnesota governor doesn’t make a good showing in the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13, he’s finished. Can they be right? The answer unfortunately for backers of Pawlenty is yes.
Pawlenty’s dilemma was produced by a combination of factors that were his own fault as well as ones beyond his control. The candidate’s lackluster campaigning style hasn’t caught on with voters or party activists. Even worse, his embarrassing decision to back away from direct criticism of Mitt Romney on health care at the GOP debate in New Hampshire caused many Republicans to doubt whether he had the right stuff to win. On top of that, the emergence of Michele Bachmann as a serious contender threw a monkey wrench into Pawlenty’s plan to use Iowa as a launching pad for his run to the White House. Pawlenty is now busy telling Iowans that her inexperience as an administrator is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s thin resume. But the problem for Pawlenty is he is so far down in the polls that others, such as Rick Perry, might benefit from that argument.
Pawlenty wouldn’t be the first presidential candidate with a strong record, well thought out positions and seemingly good prospects to flame out in the year before the election. The question now is whether it is possible for him to salvage his campaign before he is completely written off.
Pawlenty’s first task is not to get slaughtered at the Ames Straw Poll next month. He’s facing stiff competition, but let’s remember straw polls are not the same thing as real elections. They are more of a measure of a candidate’s organizational strength than his appeal to the general public. While Pawlenty is lagging behind Mitt Romney in fundraising, he still has enough money to compete at Ames. And compete he must. A poor showing there will result in more than just bad press clippings. His money will dry up and that will compromise, perhaps fatally, his ability to mount a representative campaign in Iowa this fall. And let’s be frank about the stakes in the January caucuses for Pawlenty. He doesn’t have to finish first, but he must run ahead of Bachmann there to survive. If Bachmann, a candidate who seems to have a stronger ability to connect with the party’s grass roots, wins the Iowa caucuses, even a strong second place showing for Pawlenty will effectively kill his hopes of winning the nomination.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Though a poor showing at Ames could mark the end of his run, a good outcome is probably his best, and only, chance to change the narrative about his candidacy. Though he has to be concerned about all of the obits being written about his campaign, they also have the effect of lowering expectations. That means it’s possible Pawlenty could spin a second place showing into a new story line where he plays the comeback kid.