Pawlenty’s presidential candidacy was an open secret in Republican political circles long before he made it official in late May. His recruitment of highly prized staff talent earned him buzz in the early months of 2011 as he worked to emerge as the Republican alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
But, problems soon became apparent.
Pawlenty’s demeanor — he was the definition of “Minnesota Nice” — didn’t fit with an electorate who wanted confrontation with President Obama at all costs. Pawlenty watched as Rep. Michele Bachmann soared past him in the race — channeling the anger of voters who saw compromise in any form as capitulation.
A stroll around the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday showed just how badly Pawlenty had miscalculated what the electorate was looking for.
Bachmann, all soundbites and sunny aggression, was a rock star at the event — her tent mobbed with people ready to man the barricades for her.
Ditto the supporters of Rep. Ron Paul who chanted and roared during the Texas libertarian’s speech — an address larded with talk of removing U.S. troops from conflicts abroad and re-imagining the role of the Federal Reserve.
The Pawlenty tent at the straw poll, on the other hand, felt like a park in a small city. Folks lounged listening to music and eating barbecue while kids danced and jumped around. There was a politeness to it that stood out from the raw emotion elicited by Paul and the keen excitement that permeated Bachmann-land.
The green t-shirts Pawlenty had bought to designate his supporters were ubiquitous but by 2:30 pm the tables where his people could check in to vote were deserted. The problem? Polls were still open for another 90 minutes.
But, it wasn’t just that Pawlenty was running as a conciliator in a time of confrontation. It was that he never seemed to settle on exactly how he wanted to position himself in the race.
When it became clear that the “nice guy” persona wasn’t working, Pawlenty went tough — releasing a series of slickly-produced web videos that portrayed him as something close to a super hero come to save the country from President Obama.
In his final incarnation, Pawlenty tried to seize the “truth teller” spot in the race — coming out against ethanol subsidies during his announcement speech in Des Moines, for example.
While whispers that Pawlenty was less than advertised as a candidate had begun to grow as the summer approached, it all crystallized during a debate in New Hampshire on June 13.
The night before the debate, Pawlenty had seemingly previewed a line of attack during a Sunday show interview, referring to the health care plan pushed by Romney in Massachusetts as “Obamaneycare”.
But, when CNN moderator John King teed up a chance for Pawlenty to directly attack Romney on those grounds during the debate, he demurred.
It became the story of the post-debate analysis and Pawlenty tried to clean up his mess by acknowledging that he had let a golden opportunity slip away.
“I think his refusal to take on Romney in the initial debate was a fatal mistake,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with any candidate in the 2012 campaign. “Voters want bold leaders. And that sent a message of weakness and the air went of his buzz, his fundraising, everything at a critical time in the campaign. He never recovered.”
The most direct — and politically impactful — hit that Pawlenty took was on his fundraising, which aides admitted slowed considerably in the final two weeks of June, a typically critical period for candidates.
When he reported $4.2 million raised in the second quarter — less than one-fourth the total that Romney collected over the same period — the political buzzards began to circle.
Pawlenty retrenched, devoting all of his time and dwindling cash to the straw poll in hopes of wringing momentum from a win there. He also ramped up his attacks on Bachmann, painting her as some with rhetoric not backed up by results.
Republican consultant Curt Anderson called Pawlenty’s decision to attack Bachmann a “crazy strategy because she has an army of supporters and he does not.” Added Anderson: “Even if he scored points against her. . .he would have alienated her supporters in the process who would decide to never support him.”
The strategy didn’t work. Bachmann’s rocket had already gained far too much altitude for Pawlenty to stop its progress. Pawlenty’s third place finish in the straw poll confirmed what many already suspected: his campaign just wasn’t catching on.
Assessing the impact of Pawlenty’s decision on the candidates that remain is difficult because, in truth, he had never made any significant dent in polling — either in Iowa or nationally.
At the most basic level, a Pawlenty-less field makes the Iowa caucuses a two-person race between Bachmann, who cemented her status as the frontrunner with her straw poll win, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race officially on Saturday and is set to stop in Waterloo, Iowa today.
There is a line of thinking that with Perry and Bachmann competing for the votes of social conservatives, Romney, who has been somewhat lukewarm about how much time and money he will spend in Iowa, might have an opening to unify establishment types behind him in the Hawkeye State. It remains to be seen whether the Romney team will adjust their strategy to take advantage of that opportunity — or if one really exists.
As for Pawlenty, his future in the race is as a potentially influential endorser that any of the top tier candidates would like to have.
Given his heated back-and-forth with Bachmann during Thursday’s debate, it’s hard to imagine Pawlenty throwing his political weight behind his home-state colleague.
But both Romney and Perry served as governors alongside Pawlenty and will likely play up those ties if and when they decide to aggressively seek his support.