It’s time to buy Tim Pawlenty stock. Intrade now has him below a 6% chance of winning the nomination and numerous pundits have written his campaign obituary. That’s just silly. Pawlenty remains what he’s always been: a candidate, perhaps the only one in the field, who can appeal to every faction within the Republican Party and draw an attempted veto of none of them. He remains a very viable candidate in a field without many of them and with no strong frontrunner.
Yes, Pawlenty has had an uninspiring summer to date: his polling numbers are generally pretty weak, his fundraising nothing special at all, and his debate performances underwhelmed. And yet: John McCain had a campaign totally implode on him during the 2008 cycle, and he turned out to have plenty of time to recover. Plenty of other winners have been through similar or worse rough patches, from Barack Obama in 2008 to George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Again, that doesn’t mean Pawlenty will necessarily win; plenty of candidates who flop have a few bad months, too!
Meanwhile, Pawlenty is doing what serious candidates do. He’s collecting endorsements, campaigning in Iowa, working on the Ames Straw Poll. No, he doesn’t excite anyone the way that Michele Bachmann does at the moment…but remember that Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, and even Donald Trump have had surges in the polls and then faded. There’s no way of knowing yet whether Bachmann will be more of the same, and at least some reason to believe that she will be, given her thin resume on the political scene and the history of those who have run with similar experience.
Here’s my advice to anyone thinking either that a candidate has no chance. Imagine that he or she “wins” the next debate (defined, of course, by a general perception of who won or lost). Would you still think that candidate couldn’t win? Virtually any candidate (Herman Cain? Mike Gravel? Alan Keyes? Bruce Babbitt?) can win a presidential primary debate. If you think that it wouldn’t make much difference, then perhaps you really do think the candidate has no chance. But I certainly don’t think that applies to Pawlenty; if he gets even a small surge out of the next debate, he’s suddenly going to look pretty good. (By the way, that test works the other way as well; if you think someone is a lock, imagine a bad debate performance – would that change your perception of his or her chances?)
So: if we compare weaknesses, we get…Pawlenty? Hasn’t caught fire at all. Perry? Might not even run, might prove a weak candidate if he does. Romney? Health care, abortion, religion. Bachmann? Uh, that Republicans would be nuts to nominate her? Yeah. Out of that group, it’s not hard at all for me to picture Pawlenty solving his problems a lot more easily than the others solving theirs. No way are his chances of winning 1 in 20; they remain, in my view, the same 1 in 7 or so, perhaps even somewhat higher, that they’ve been all year.