DES MOINES — Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s decision early Sunday to drop out of the 2012 Republican presidential race reflected the uncomfortable reality that his poor showing in a straw poll the previous day had made clear: He was the wrong man for the moment.
Pawlenty, 50, and his political team had known when he began his campaign in the spring that he would bring less money, less name recognition and less stagecraft to the effort than some of his Republican rivals. But they had believed that he would be the tortoise of the field, the contender whose economic program, “aw-shucks” likability and success in governing a left-leaning state for eight years would slowly but surely draw voters looking above all else to defeat President Obama next year.
They were wrong — and Pawlenty’s supporters and strategists said as much after he announced his withdrawal Sunday on national television. At a time when conservative Republican primary voters were looking for red-meat rhetoric and tea party-style confrontation, Pawlenty offered them an entirely different personality and record.
That helps explain why fellow Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Tex.) each garnered more than twice the number of votes as Pawlenty at the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday with rousing messages criticizing Obama and steadfast pledges never to compromise.
“It’s not that he isn’t a fighter; he’s won more battles than anyone else on that stage,” said a source close to the campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The way he’s run his fights is through policy and legislative battles once he’s been elected. But the races were actually pretty tame. They weren’t bloody campaigns. They were bloody legislative battles.”
Pawlenty acknowledged the disconnect between what he had to offer and what voters seem to want.
“What I brought forward, I thought, was a rational, established, credible, strong record of results, based on experience governing — a two-term governor of a blue state,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different.”
What made matters worse, some supporters said, was Pawlenty’s decision several weeks ago, in an effort to lift his low standings in the field, to try to fit into the firebrand mold that GOP voters were using to size up the candidates. It wasn’t who he was, supporters said, and so he either came across forced or he hesitated so much that he left the opposite impression than he intended.
In June, for instance, leading up to a televised debate in New Hampshire, Pawlenty took several swipes at Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, using the term “ObamneyCare” to make the point that health-care legislation Romney supported while governor of Massachusetts was the basis for Obama’s health-care law. But when, as expected, Pawlenty was asked about the term during the debate, Pawlenty stumbled.
The moment was devastating, strengthening the narrative that Pawlenty was not strong enough and stalling fundraising efforts at a critical time in the campaign. He decided he had no choice but to focus on Iowa and the straw poll, even though it is not always a predictor of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, let alone the Republican nomination — and even though it could drag him into battle with opponents who boasted significant advantages.
The decision to give his all to Iowa showed just how narrow Pawlenty’s margin of error was.
“He made the mistake of getting himself involved in a preliminary battle with two people who speak passionately on issues,” said Chris Healy, a former Connecticut Republican Party chairman and Pawlenty supporter. “He should be who he is and push what he believes are his strong suits, which is that he can win in a very competitive environment. And he actually had the most understandable economic plan. He’s been trying to finesse the field, and if he just went back to being the Sam’s Club Republican that he is, he could have done very well.”
Pawlenty’s other answer to his early stumble against Romney was to start using tougher rhetoric, and, more recently, to go after Bachmann during last week’s debate in Ames. But it yielded no better results, alienating some viewers and leaving others with the impression that the attacks felt forced.
“He was uncomfortable with the attack,” said a Pawlenty strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. “It is not his style to attack another individual. He had been burned for not attacking Romney. But he looked uncomfortable doing it, and I think voters to this day are uncomfortable when a man attacks a woman.”
There were other struggles. Bill Strong, Pawlenty’s finance chairman, told the campaign just a week before the team’s official announcement that he was accepting an offer to lead Morgan Stanley’s division in Hong Kong.
“We were a tortoise — not a camel,” said Nick Ayers, Pawlenty’s campaign manager. “Campaign camels can go a long time without water. Tortoises can’t.”
And Pawlenty didn’t want to go into debt. On Saturday, after the straw poll was done, he told Ayers, “I’m not personally wealthy. . . . I don’t want to drag this out for two or four weeks and risk not being able to pay my staff on time.”
With the Ames defeat, in other words, Pawlenty realized what the Republicans were looking for and realized that he wasn’t it.
He then asked Ayers if he could borrow his car, and after waking up the next morning and announcing to the world that his campaign was over, he drove his wife, Mary, and two daughters home to Minnesota.