DES MOINES — Tim Pawlenty began the most important week of his presidential campaign with a cinnamon roll the size of a loaf of bread and a side order of expectations.
The setting was the Machine Shed restaurant, famous for its healthy — check that, generous — portions of Iowa staples: meat and potatoes and eggs. Pawlenty had assembled a group of reporters for breakfast before setting out for another full day of appearances aimed at rallying more Iowans to support his candidacy at Saturday’s straw poll in Ames.
In the careful way candidates speak about events that could make or break their campaigns, Pawlenty said his goal Saturday is to “do well.” He wants only to “move up substantially” from his standing in a Des Moines Register poll taken earlier in the summer that showed him in sixth place among the Republican hopefuls.
That shouldn’t be hard. Only two of the people ahead of him in that survey — Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — are actively competing in the straw poll. Some of the rest — Mitt Romney, for example — have decided Ames is not worth the investment of a million dollars or more. Others, like Newt Gingrich, are not real factors in the race at this point.
As he jousted with reporters, Pawlenty tried repeatedly to calibrate the significance of Ames — significant enough so that if he does “well,” he can claim a big victory; insignificant enough that if he doesn’t, he will try to write it off as a contest that only occasionally predicts the winner of the Iowa caucuses or of the GOP nomination.
Over and over, he was asked about the impact of a disappointing finish on Saturday. Over and over he tried to leave himself room to move forward. “You guys get all hung up on a specific spot,” he said. “If the other two are viewed as not long-term, credible national candidates, that’s less significant than if they are.”
He later said he was not referring to Bachmann or Paul — though what other interpretation could be put on his comments isn’t clear.
It is a difficult and potentially fruitless exercise, as Pawlenty and his team know. They are hoping that the order of finish affords Pawlenty the opportunity either for genuine new life or at least for a period of living off the land that would keep him alive long enough to see how the race takes shape this fall. They are determined to keep going almost regardless of the outcome.
Pawlenty has another test looming before the straw poll. That will come Thursday night, when the Republican candidates meet in Ames for their third debate. This will be the moment Pawlenty tries to recover from a June debate in New Hampshire and the self-inflicted wound that began his period of troubles.
The day before that debate, Pawlenty set the stage for a confrontation with Romney over the Massachusetts health-care plan, but then he inexplicably blinked during the debate. On Monday morning, he sounded ready to confront Romney anew, arguing that the former Massachusetts governor would be compromised against President Obama in a general election.
“If you’re going to prosecute the political case against the president and one of the top three or four issues is going to be health care, it’s very difficult to prosecute that case if you’re one of the co-conspirators in the plan,” he said. “There’s no question that the Massachusetts plan was the forerunner to Obamacare.”
Pawlenty has grown accustomed to being overlooked or under-appreciated. How does he explain his lack of traction in Iowa, given that he’s from next door in Minnesota? “Nobody votes a code,” he said.
He has been at this as long as anyone in the race, save perhaps for Romney, and yet he remains low in the polls. He is a former two-term governor of an important swing state, yet he has watched as one after another Republican takes center stage, eclipsing him over and over.
“Every month there’s some new thing,” he said.
He mentioned Donald Trump. He pointed to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose prospective candidacy he knows will command most of the attention in the next month. “That will be all the buzz for a while,” he said.
He has felt directly the impact of Bachmann’s entry in the race, as she rose quickly in the polls here and nationally. He said he knows no other way to run than the way he has been running. “I didn’t have a built-in national brand,” he said. “I don’t have a celebrity status. I don’t have personal wealth. I don’t have some comedic shtick. This is going to be done the real way.”
No one can buy Iowa, he said. “Money helps. It helps to have some TV ads and some radio ads and some mail. But in the end these are seasoned, informed, involved people, and they’ve been through this before. They want to meet you and take the measure of you. For me, this is a good opportunity. I’m . . . clearly the underdog, and to suggest there was another way to do it is, I don’t think, accurate or wise.”
Over time, he said, “things settle,” and it is his hope that he is still in the mix when they do. “We are not ever going to be the cable TV shooting star of the month,” he said. “That’s not my campaign.”