In the careful way candidates speak about events that could make or break their campaigns, Pawlenty said his goal Saturday is to “do well.” He wants only to “move up substantially” from his standing in a Des Moines Register poll taken earlier in the summer that showed him in sixth place among the Republican hopefuls.
That shouldn’t be hard. Only two of the people ahead of him in that survey — Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — are actively competing in the straw poll. Some of the rest — Mitt Romney, for example — have decided Ames is not worth the investment of a million dollars or more. Others, like Newt Gingrich, are not real factors in the race at this point.
As he jousted with reporters, Pawlenty tried repeatedly to calibrate the significance of Ames — significant enough so that if he does “well,” he can claim a big victory; insignificant enough that if he doesn’t, he will try to write it off as a contest that only occasionally predicts the winner of the Iowa caucuses or of the GOP nomination.
Over and over, he was asked about the impact of a disappointing finish on Saturday. Over and over he tried to leave himself room to move forward. “You guys get all hung up on a specific spot,” he said. “If the other two are viewed as not long-term, credible national candidates, that’s less significant than if they are.”
He later said he was not referring to Bachmann or Paul — though what other interpretation could be put on his comments isn’t clear.
It is a difficult and potentially fruitless exercise, as Pawlenty and his team know. They are hoping that the order of finish affords Pawlenty the opportunity either for genuine new life or at least for a period of living off the land that would keep him alive long enough to see how the race takes shape this fall. They are determined to keep going almost regardless of the outcome.
Pawlenty has another test looming before the straw poll. That will come Thursday night, when the Republican candidates meet in Ames for their third debate. This will be the moment Pawlenty tries to recover from a June debate in New Hampshire and the self-inflicted wound that began his period of troubles.
The day before that debate, Pawlenty set the stage for a confrontation with Romney over the Massachusetts health-care plan, but then he inexplicably blinked during the debate. On Monday morning, he sounded ready to confront Romney anew, arguing that the former Massachusetts governor would be compromised against President Obama in a general election.