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Tim Pawlenty's Cash Problem

The major flaw that could sink the former Minnesota governor’s presidential campaign

With Mitch Daniels officially out of the presidential race, it seems like the entire GOP is emulating Ethelred the Unready. Well, not quite everyone. In a contrarian move at odds with the Reluctant Republican ethos of the party, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty will actually make it official by declaring his candidacy today in Des Moines. 

Along with the obligatory yawn-inducing “can you win Iowa?” question, Pawlenty almost certainly will be asked again about his ability to compete financially with Mitt Romney, the Daddy Warbucks of the truncated Republican field. Pawlenty recently answered that query with a nod to GM’s venerable product line: “Our goal is not to keep up with Mitt. Our goal is to raise enough money to have at least a Buick, if not a Cadillac-level, campaign.”

But even a Buick campaign (with the usual high-priced accessories like strategists, media consultants, pollsters and press handlers) could easily cost a minimum of $40-$50 million. By way of comparison, Rudy Giuliani—a Buick Regal kind of guy—raised $55 million for his 2008 campaign, which sputtered to a halt after a weak finish in the Florida primary. Romney, for his part, is that rare candidate who combines the fund-raising prowess of the Bush family with Nelson Rockefeller’s generosity to his own political ambitions.

And here lies Pawlenty’s problem: To run a competitive campaign, T-Paw will be forced to spend long hours each week ingratiating himself with wealthy donors in places like Houston and Atlanta. But in this cycle’s foreshortened campaign season, Pawlenty cannot afford to shirk even a minute of the face-to-face politics that have proven essential to winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. In other words, in a race where time will likely be of the essence, Pawlenty has dangerously little of it to go around.

Dollars, of course, do not always dictate destiny in presidential politics. Republicans of a certain age can recall the big-bankroll flameouts of Phil Gramm ($21 million and a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in 1996) and John Connally ($12 million squandered to win a single delegate in 1980). Even Romney, who spent $107 million (including $45 million of his own money) on his 2008 presidential race, did not last as long as Mike Huckabee and his church-mouse, faith-will-provide $16-million campaign. 

But unlike Huckabee ’08, who never had the resources to capitalize on his surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses, Pawlenty is running as a mainstream Republican. He will be battling Romney and the diffident Jon Huntsman for the support of the Republican establishment. For insider candidates like Pawlenty, there is a threshold amount of money needed to compete in this August’s Iowa straw poll (an expensive but symbolic media stunt), the Iowa caucuses themselves, and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries that will immediately follow.

Traditionally, candidates rake in money during the first half of the odd-numbered year (Giuliani took in 80 percent of his total funding by June 30, 2007) in order to spend heavily and to single-mindedly focus on campaigning during the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire. But this is the latest starting campaign in two decades, which means that the second quarter fund-raising totals for Pawlenty and Huntsman (if he ever officially dives into the cold waters of Campaign 2012) will be minimal. Romney, in contrast, raised $10 million in pledges last week at a single Las Vegas event. Adding to the pressure of Pawlenty’s countdown clock is the significant possibility that the opening-gun Iowa caucuses (now slated for February 6) will move up into January or even December to thwart Florida’s bumptious efforts to go first.

This means that Pawlenty has maybe six months to raise $40 million, which works out to be about $1.5 million (or 600 donors giving the maximum of $2,500) per week. Last week, Pawlenty held what probably will be his largest fund-raising event of the second quarter, raising $800,000 from home-state supporters (aka “low-hanging fruit”) in Minneapolis. To hit $40 million by December, Pawlenty has to have two fund-raising events on par with the Minneapolis rollout every single week.

What about the online political cash machine? Since the dramatic rise of Howard Dean in 2003, Internet fund-raising from small donors has become the way that insurgent candidates can wage asymmetrical political warfare. But in the early going, ideologically intense long-shots (Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann) have far greater online appeal than establishmentarian play-it-safe contenders. If Pawlenty wins Iowa or somehow galvanizes conservatives with dramatic debate performances, then maybe he will be a click away from online riches. But that is a hope rather than a realistic strategy. 

The only way that candidates like Pawlenty and Huntsman can reliably raise big bucks is through the most labor-intense form of old-fashioned fund-raising—putting high-roller donors in the same room with the candidate and cocktails and a catered dinner. With Pawlenty running neck-and-neck with the margin of error in most national polls, would-be T-Paw donors will be making a leap of faith rather than betting on a sure thing. That is why they need the handshake, the hand-on-the-shoulder conversation, and the autographed picture with Pawlenty to prove they were there (far) right from the start. Phone calls by Pawlenty from a van in Iowa are not enough—the candidate has to care enough to come to them.

At the same time, Pawlenty is banking on victory in the Iowa caucuses, but he is polling in single digits in the state. Make no mistake: Caucus-goers are late deciders and we still are at the stage in the campaign when only activists are following the initial jousting. But what this means is that Pawlenty will need to make repeated visits to places like Keokuk and Sac City to sell his still ill-defined political persona to curious Iowa Republicans.

That is Pawlenty’s real time bind–the voters who matter and the donors who can write $2,500 checks are hundreds of air miles apart. Every day, Pawlenty’s schedulers will have to wrestle with brutal choices: the Rotary Club lunch in Davenport, Iowa, or a noon fund-raiser in a Houston law firm? A prayer breakfast in Spartanburg, South Carolina, or making a pitch to a group of uncommitted Republican bundlers in Atlanta? A day of debate prep or three Wall Street fund-raisers?

At the end of the day, with the Republicans hard pressed to come up with a Final Four of serious candidates, it seems likely that Pawlenty can raise the money to buy a Buick. But at what cost in terms of time—the most precious resource any presidential candidate possesses? Romney—with his willingness to partially self-fund and his well-oiled financial network—will get an extra day or two more a week than Pawlenty to campaign in the early states. Pawlenty, for his part, will be constantly bedeviled by the old Superman-Clark Kent problem: the inability to be in two places at once, even with a borrowed corporate jet. 

To be sure, the former Massachusetts governor’s dilemma is that the idea of Mitt Romney is often more compelling that seeing Romney in the flesh. On the eve of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I recall talking in Ames to a middle-aged evangelical Christian secretary who had switched from Romney to Huckabee. Why, I asked. “I finally met Romney,” she replied. “And he looked right through me.” 

Anecdotes like this make me wonder if Romney is not the political heir of Phil Gramm and John Connally. But then I picture Pawlenty and Huntsman flying cross-country to woo wealthy donors in LA when they should be holding a town meeting in a high-school gym in Cedar Rapids. Thinking about the pressure to raise $1.5 million a week to compete with Romney, I suddenly understand why this is fast becoming the year of the Republican Refusnik.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.