WATERLOO, Iowa — Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has only to drive a couple of hours down Interstate 35 from his home in the Minneapolis suburbs to ask Iowans to vote for him for president.
He’ll be making the trip a lot in the coming weeks. With little evidence that his neighboring address has afforded him the home-team advantage he had hoped for in the battle to win Iowa’s early caucuses next year, Pawlenty is criss-crossing the state with an urgency that exposes how crucial it has become to his survival.
Iowa could well make or break his candidacy, and the first real test of Pawlenty’s strength here will come in next month’s celebrated Iowa Straw Poll.
Since Wednesday, Pawlenty has been making his pitch to interested crowds from Clear Lake to Cedar Rapids, and he will return for a nearly two-week stretch of more campaigning at the end of the month. He is running television ads and targeting Republican homes with promotional mail. And he is trying to distinguish himself from other candidates by touting his accomplishments as governor, such as cutting taxes and spending, appointing conservative state justices and taking on public-sector unions. “Results, not rhetoric” is the new slogan on banners and signs.
“If any other Republican candidate were standing here, they’d say about the same thing on the issues,” Pawlenty told about 50 Iowa voters gathered Friday morning at Beck’s Sports Brewery in Waterloo. “The big difference in this race is, I’ve actually done it. There’s a big difference between flapping your jaw and getting stuff done. This isn’t about rhetoric. This isn’t about fancy speeches. We’ve had enough of that with Barack Obama.”
Pawlenty repeatedly has sought to position himself as the alternative to the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney. But his chief rival in Iowa has become fellow Minnesotan (and Iowa native) Michele Bachmann, who performed well in the first major presidential debate last month and has surged in Iowa and New Hampshire polls. Her early success has thwarted Pawlenty’s efforts to train his sights on Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Yet if Bachmann is Pawlenty’s greatest threat in Iowa, she also presents him with an opportunity Aug. 13 here at the famed straw poll in Ames. With Romney not competing, this historically crucial test of candidates’ organizational muscle could provide Pawlenty with a significant victory to tout should he defeat Bachmann.
But securing a win in the straw poll, let alone the caucuses, is far from assured. Pawlenty has stumbled in the early stages of campaigning, making the path to his nomination more perilous than ever. He had a lackluster performance in the first major presidential debate last month in New Hampshire, has been unimpressive with fundraising, and thus far has barely made a dent in the polls.
Pawlenty is doing what he can to turn the momentum around. He is blanketing the state with appearances and advertising. He has hired a seasoned team of Iowa advisers, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who helped propel her father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. And in an interview Friday, Pawlenty said he will spend “several hundred thousand dollars” drawing supporters to cast their ballots in Ames.
Whether Pawlenty must win the straw poll outright to remain viable depends on who’s talking. Even as his investment of time and energy in Iowa accelerates, the candidate sought to measure expectations. He played down the significance of the straw poll, suggesting only that he must “show progress” — not necessarily win— to remain a viable candidate.
A recent Des Moines Register poll placed Pawlenty sixth among Republican contenders, with just 6 percent of those surveyed saying they would vote for him. But Pawlenty sought to turn even that unfavorable news into a plus.
“I’m an underdog,” he said in an interview Friday morning.
Pawlenty does not mention his GOP rivals by name. But Bachmann seems never too far from his mind. In speeches across Iowa this week he has exhorted voters to remember the grave responsibility they hold in shaping the presidential contest. He has urged them not to choose the candidate with the most glittering rhetoric but the one with the most relevant leadership experience.
Speaking to a crowd of 100 at Ar-Jay Center, a kitchen and bath store in Cedar Rapids, Pawlenty said: “I think it’s important for Iowa not to just be first but to be right, to send a message that the person who wins Iowa is a person who can really be the nominee, who can really beat Barack Obama, who can really be president of the United States under the most historically difficult and challenging times.”