With a more forthright response to the Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) headache story and the debt talks sucking up all the political oxygen, Tim Pawlenty may finally have some breathing space to dig his campaign out of its slump.
After exhausting the subject of Bachmann’s headaches on Friday, my telephone conversation with Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant turned to the general state of the campaign. National polls generally show him in the low single digits; he does better in Iowa polling but still hasn’t broken into double-digits.
The campaign once said that it needed to finish in the top few spots in Iowa, but now Pawlenty’s saying that he just needs to do better than sixth or seventh in the Ames straw poll. What happened? Conant says, “We need to still move to the front of the pack. If we finish sixth in Iowa, it’s a problem.” He acknowledges that the campaign has to show “organizational strength.” Why has Bachmann taken Iowa by storm, making Pawlenty’s job that much tougher? Conant says, “She’s been a national leader. She a leader in the Tea Party. Pawlenty spent the last eight years being governor. He’s not been in the national radar so much.” But, of course, he’s essentially been running for president for two years and has not yet broken out of the pack. Conant insists, “It is still early in the process. Ames is a benchmark along the way.”
As for fundraising, Conant dismisses criticisms that the campaign had a bad second quarter. Its goal was $4.6 million, and it raised $4.5 million, he says. The campaign, he insists, is “satisfied and proud” of that number. He explains that Pawlenty started “with no national fundraising base unlike other candidates.” That is true, but unlike Mitt Romney in 2008, he’s been unable as yet to put a generous one in place.
As for Bachmann, Pawlenty is walking a fine line. On one hand, Conant says, “Pawlenty respects her. He likes her.” But he also restates a theme Pawlenty is trying to push. “She doesn’t have a long list of accomplishments.” He argues that Bachmann doesn’t have experience running a large, public organization, but “the governor actually has a record he is running on.” He says Pawlenty has been stressing “results, not rhetoric,” aiming at making a distinction between himself and Bachmann. Conant says, “I don’t want to get into our whole strategy,” but he does confirm that ads will increasingly try to draw a distinction between the congresswoman and former governor.
Earlier this year, Pawlenty gave a pro-growth speech that critics said was long on tax cuts and short on spending cuts and entitlement reform. Conant says that Pawlenty has begun talking about Social Security, specifically means testing. Pawlenty has also been a proponent of moving from a fee-to-service to a pay-for-performance Medicare system. “He said if he were president and Paul Ryan’s plan came to his desk, he would sign it.” But as yet there have been few details on what spending cuts Pawlenty would favor. Conant promises a speech with more specifics “later this summer.”
I ask him about the $800 billion in defense cuts proposed by the Gang of Six. Is this something Pawlenty would be in favor of? “No, no,” Conant shoots back. “[Pawlenty] believes defense needs to be a priority. Clearly there is waste, and we can find more efficiencies. But those savings should be reallocated within the defense department.”
Is Pawlenty comfortable with his start? Conant dutifully insists, “We're very comfortable with where we are at. We just need to start showing progress.”
Unfortunately for Pawlenty, the necessity to show progress comes at a time when Texas Gov. Rick Perry will almost certainly enter the race for the Republican nomination, draw up votes and capture most of the media coverage. Unlike Pawlenty, Perry does have a national fundraising network. In other words, if it’s hard now for Pawlenty to make progress, it’s going to be much harder in the future.
Whether at Ames, during the fall or at the Iowa caucus, there will come a time when it becomes clear if he’s a viable contender. So far, there is little sign that the Republican primary electorate thinks he is. He might have experience and be able to check the box on a list of issues conservatives are about, but he has lacked the ability to project authority and captivate audiences. And that is the biggest problem of them all.