The Republicans are debating again, in Iowa tonight. The New York Times has a list of five things to watch for. I’ll make it easier for you. There’s really only one: Tim Pawlenty.
Why watch just the “Minnesota Meh”? Usually there’s nothing important to watch for in such debates. They’re mostly ephemeral. What happens will make for fodder on the cable news networks and the blogs for the next couple of days, but then it pretty much all goes away, and neither voters nor party actors are usually affected.
But Pawlenty is in a tricky place right now. He’s on paper a viable candidate, but hasn’t managed to produce any good news for so long that almost everyone is writing him off. If that continues, he’s not going to get any future endorsements, he’s not going to raise any more money, and he may well just drop out. But it wouldn’t take much, in my view, to re-elevate perceptions of his candidacy back to where they were at the beginning of this dry spell. So he has two clear chances ahead: the debate, and the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday.
The good news for Pawlenty tonight is that expectations are now so low that it wouldn’t take much for him to have a “good” debate — that is, for people to perceive him as a winner. What Pawlenty needs above all is some positive buzz on Fox News and on conservative talk shows — whether it’s a clever hit on Obama, a takedown of Mitt Romney on Romneycare or taxes in Massachusetts, or some creative way to deflate Michele Bachmann.
The bad news for the “Minnesota Meh” is that it’s going to be a crowded stage, with a lot of candidates who know how to make a lot of noise, and pundits who have already dug his grave aren’t planning to pay much attention to him. Can Pawlenty overcome all of that? That’s the main thing I’ll be watching for tonight.