If headlines were elections Tim Pawlenty would have already lost the Republican presidential primary. The New York Times proclaims, “Will Republican Race’s First In Be the First Out?” The Times suggests, as many political operatives have, that the Ames straw poll next month is make or break time for Pawlenty. (“His path has been complicated by fresher faces, an unruly nominating contest and a handful of missteps that swallowed his summer momentum. . . . the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13 — fair or not — will help determine whether his candidacy accelerates or lands in the annals of Republican presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle whose campaigns were extinguished here.”)

Likewise, John McCormack’s piece for Bloomberg bears this ominous headline: “Failure in Iowa Straw Poll May Doom Pawlenty’s 2012 Presidential Effort.”

A supporter of another candidate bluntly told me, “The headlines are a killer with donors. It’s an investment. Are you willing to put money in a stock that the buzz is bad on?”

But the more fundamental question is why a candidate with a solid conservative record, executive experience and plenty of smarts is doing so poorly. Some Republican operatives point out that likability doesn’t necessarily translate to presidential stature. Others suggest that fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) is “sucking up all the oxygen.”

Tony Fratto, a former Bush official who is now a partner in the Hamilton Place Strategies consulting firm, e-mailed me his take:

Pawlenty had the highest hill to climb to establish an identity and catch on — every other candidate had one, good or bad. And I’m afraid Pawlenty may have missed his chance. He had an opportunity to be “the fighter” and present a credible alternative to [Mitt] Romney, but he pulled his punch on the biggest fight to date, the New Hampshire debate. Instead of the fighter, he became the punch-puller. It’s hard to overcome a brand once it’s been imposed on you, and even more so if you’re relatively unknown before the branding. Pawlenty still has some time to overcome that branding, but the clock is ticking.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Pawlenty has been the staying power of Romney. He, contrary to widespread expectations, has not collapsed because of his association with what Pawlenty dubbed ObamneyCare. By holding the segment of the electorate that is looking for a mature, pro-free-market candidate with executive experience, Romney has deprived Pawlenty of a unique message for his campaign. Or to put it differently, by failing to go for the jugular on health care, he gave Romney a free pass and fumbled away the rationale for his own candidacy.

Pawlenty has time, but only a little, to steady his ship. But a poor showing in Ames will be a decisive moment for his candidacy. A weak showing will push him out of the top tier of candidates and leave him with little ability to attract the donors who will be critical to maintaining his campaign.

Once again, we see that politics is a performance contest, and those who don’t bring their “A” game are quickly benched.