Pawlenty said he would downsize or eliminate popular programs, including gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security, overhauling Medicare and phasing out ethanol subsidies — not normally a popular position in this farm-heavy state.
“Some people will be upset by what I’m saying,” he said. “Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street. But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people.”
With Daniels, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and real estate mogul Donald Trump deciding against a run in the past several days, the GOP contest now focuses squarely on Romney and the two former governors vying to be the leading alternative, Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, who recently stepped down as President Obama’s ambassador to China.
Several underdogs could emerge, as well, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and, if she runs, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).
Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman and longtime strategist, said that with Daniels not running there is an opening for candidates to focus on government spending and debt.
“Pawlenty was smart to jump on it today,” said Gillespie, who is not backing any candidate. “I think he’s got legs. He’s someone who can last in this race and I would not be surprised at all if he ended up with the nomination.”
Elsewhere within the GOP establishment, however, there were fresh signs of concern Monday that the lineup does not have a thoroughbred strong enough to win back the White House.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) encouraged others to consider jumping in, telling reporters that he wants candidates to “embrace a leadership role that takes the tough positions.” Although he said he thought the current candidates were “strong,” he added, “I think that our field is a field that still has, you know, a lot of time.”
The absence of Daniels and other identifiable fiscal conservatives, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, presents an opportunity for Pawlenty, who remains a relative unknown despite two years of reaching out to party members and leaders.
“Pawlenty should be bouncing off the walls right now,” said Fred V. Malek, a longtime GOP fundraiser and strategist who is neutral in the race. “It positions him much more securely in Iowa and I think he is, of all of them, the more natural inheritor of the support that was going to Daniels.”