In the hours leading up to the first major presidential debate two months ago in New Hampshire, the consensus view held that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty needed to come out strong against the Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

Now, Pawlenty really needs to do that. With eight Republican contenders gathering in Ames, Iowa, Thursday night for another nationally-televised debate, the stakes are higher for Pawlenty than any other candidate. After beginning the year amid the highest of expectations, Pawlenty’s failure to swing at Romney last time is now cemented in the public view — and his continuing struggle to improve in the polls and raise big money prove the point.

Worse, perhaps, is that now Pawlenty’s chief rival is fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann, whose dynamic performance at that first debate propelled her to within striking distance of Romney in national polls — and positioned her as a leading contender to win the crucial straw poll in Iowa on Saturday.

Pawlenty must perform exceptionally well at the Ames Straw Poll if his campaign is to improve its position heading into the fall, when attention will be focused squarely on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses at the start 2012. That makes Thursday’s debate all the more important for him — and all the more complicated a moment at which a candidate not known for his flashy rhetoric must distinguish himself.

Pawlenty’s marathon itinerary across Iowa since June provides ample clues as to what he hopes to convey Thursday night to a national audience of party leaders, would-be donors and regular Republican voters whose impressions he must sway.

The former governor has the experience, he likes to say, that other Republicans in the field lack — a not so thinly-veiled rap at Bachmann, who is serving her third two-year term in Congress.

He draws a contrast with Romney, too, promoting an eight-year record as governor that included lowering taxes, picking a fight with transit unions and reforming health care without imposing an individual mandate (one of Romney’s biggest weaknesses among GOP voters is his support of health-care legislation in Massachusetts that became a foundation of President Obama’s plan).

In other words, Pawlenty likes to say, while the other Republicans say all the right things, he’s actually done them.

At dozens of town-hall-style sessions and speeches to small crowds in diners and other gathering spots in every corner of the state, Pawlenty has been energetic and engaged, and Republican voters who have gotten the chance to see him personally have come away impressed with his knowledge, his record and his positions on the issues.

It’s harder to make that point on national television. Pawlenty must do exactly that on Thursday if his campaign is to gain momentum.

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