Why isn’t Tim Pawlenty pulling away from the GOP field?

That’s the biggest mystery in GOP nomination politics right now. After all, the current field includes only Pawlenty and Mitt Romney as plausible nominees, and Romney remains highly suspect among many important Republican groups because of his past positions on a wide range of issues — most seriously, in my view, on abortion-related policy. And that’s on top of the concern that his religion will cause problems with some voters.

Pawlenty, however, has no major liabilities. Oh, he used to accept scientific facts on climate change and a market-based plan to deal with it, and that’s an unacceptable position these days…but virtually every Republican politician has similar troubles on that issue, and Pawlenty has dealt with it pretty well. More to the point, Pawlenty was according to all reports a finalist for vice president in 2008, and I don’t recall any important GOP or movement conservative groups objecting. So why isn’t Pawlenty pulling away?

Perhaps he is, and we just don’t realize it yet. That’s the Dukakis analogy. Looking at Nate Silver’s data, Mike Dukakis was an apparent longshot based on early polling, sitting at about 8%. At this point in the 1988 process, Democrats were generally unenthusiastic about the field, distracted by implausible nominees (most notably, Jesse Jackson), and looking for a late entry to save them. Dukakis just rolled along, doing the things that candidates need to be doing, and by the time the actual voting came along he basically had the thing locked up, even though it took a while to get it done.

And yet…while Dukakis was liked well enough, he never inspired a whole lot of enthusiasm among Democrats. Jesse Jackson, yes. Mario Cuomo, who never ran, yes. But Dukakis was acceptable. Perfectly fine. Certainly would do. Just not someone who set anyone on fire, the way that even losers like Gary Hart in 1984 or Ted Kennedy in 1980 had done. Nor did Dukakis have intensely loyal groups in his corner, as Walter Mondale in 1984 or Jimmy Carter in 1980 had.

To be sure, the Pawlenty-Dukakas analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons. And it’s certainly possible, as Steve Kornacki speculates in an excellent piece on Romney, that for whatever reasons Republican elites just haven’t taken to Pawlenty. But it seems equally possible that they sort of realize that’s where things are headed, but don’t see any reason to hurry to get there. Maybe they’re hoping that someone more exciting will come along. But if not, Tim Pawlenty will still be there.

UPDATE: E.J. Dionne was the first to make the Pawlenty-Dukakis comparison in his April 20th column.