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Tim Pawlenty: Why It’s Way Too Soon to Count Him Out

As the 2012 Republican presidential field began to take shape earlier this year, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty looked like the perfect on-paper candidate: a former blue-state, blue-collar governor from the Midwest who was cozy with both social conservatives and Tea Party folk, and who didn’t have Mitt Romney’s problem of heretical past positions. Nobody, to be sure, was going to confuse him with the fire-breathing orators whose rhetoric he purloined, but at a time when a generic Republican was consistently running more strongly against Barack Obama than any actual candidate, he was, as David Frum noted, the most “generic” of those available, and virtually everyone’s second choice.

But in the months that have transpired, T-Paw-mania has stubbornly failed to develop. Pawlenty remains mired in the single digits in both national polls and most surveys of early primary states, now routinely trailing the previously obscure and entirely untested pizza magnate, Herman Cain. His stump style continues to provoke mockery and yawns. His big policy announcement, an “economic plan” that proposed gigantic new upper-end tax cuts and relied on hallucinatory levels of economic growth, was trashed by experts, including some Republicans. And when he finally produced some campaign trail heat by taunting Mitt Romney with a description of the Affordable Care Act as “ObamneyCare,” Pawlenty immediately invited bipartisan catcalls for refusing to defend the label in the first major Republican candidates’ debate. So is T-Paw just another overreaching politician who looked in the funhouse mirror of ego and flattery and saw a boring nebbish transformed into a putative leader of the free world? Were the initial hopes inspired by his candidacy as overblown as his bombastic video ads?

Perhaps. But the available evidence suggests that he is simply playing a different game than his critics imagine: a small-ball strategy focused not on gaining national media attention, or destroying Mitt Romney, or gaining millions of Facebook or YouTube followers. Instead, his campaign is all about doggedly pursuing a path to victory that begins in Ames, Iowa, on August 13.

TO MANY NATIONAL political observers, the Iowa GOP Straw Poll in Ames is just a bit of meaningless pageantry that typifies Iowa’s excessive role in the presidential nominating process. But it serves the objective function of winnowing the field, particularly among candidates with similar constituencies. In 2008, for instance, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback was considered a viable contender until Mike Huckabee beat him for second place in Ames, establishing himself as the preferred candidate of conservative evangelicals and other social conservatives in the state. Huckabee, of course, went on to upset Mitt Romney in the actual Caucuses five months later.

T-Paw’s strategy is to do to his social conservative opponents—Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann—what Huckabee did to Brownback. And he’s poured everything he has into putting together the most impressive organization of any candidate in Iowa, including a large field staff, Huckabee’s 2008 campaign manager, Romney’s 2008 straw poll coordinator, and a host of local luminaries. He’s also become the first candidate to buy TV ads in Iowa. He’s poor-mouthed his prospects, saying that he only needs to gain “one of the top few spots” in Ames. But as The Iowa Republican’s Craig Robinson observed:

Tim Pawlenty isn’t trying to sneak up on anyone in Iowa. When you look at the size of team that he has assembled, it is clear that he intends to do more than just compete here in Iowa. He intends to win it.

Pawlenty will be aided, as well, by the fact that Mitt Romney has announced he’s skipping the Straw Poll he won in 2008, and that Jon Huntsman is skipping Iowa altogether. And even if Texas’s Rick Perry, who has theoretical appeal to the Tea Party and social conservative activists in Iowa, jumps into the race in a few weeks, he’s not going to have time to assemble the kind of labor-intensive bus caravan effort necessary to show well in Ames. A decisive win over Bachmann and Cain in the Straw Poll—a real possibility since Bachmann is 18 Iowa visits behind Pawlenty in her native state, while Cain has shown signs of organizational weakness—could help Pawlenty begin consolidating social conservative support to win the Caucuses, and go a long way towards his ultimate goal of becoming the “true conservative” alternative to Mitt Romney.

At that point, all sorts of horizons could open up for the Minnesotan. While he’s shown very little strength in New Hampshire, Romney’s long-standing front-runner status in that state makes him vulnerable to the kind of less-than-expected, Pyrrhic victory that unraveled the campaign of Democrat Ed Muskie (another New Hampshire neighbor) back in 1972. Indeed, if Jon Huntsman somehow gets traction among independents in the Granite State, the state primary could begin to resemble its 2010 Republican Senate primary, when long-time frontrunner Kelly Ayotte nearly succumbed to a left-right squeeze from wealthy centrist Bill Binnie and social conservative Ovide Lamontagne.

And even if Romney wins New Hampshire decisively, T-Paw has some hidden strengths when the contest moves south. Pawlenty has slavishly pandered to the litmus-test demands of Palmetto State kingpin Jim DeMint and celebrity governor Nikki Haley, who shares a pollster with Pawlenty and is rumored to be in his camp. (Celebrity congressman Joe “You Lie!” Wilson, for his part, has already endorsed him). His campaign manager, wunderkind Nick Ayers, got his start in Georgia politics, which helps explain why Newt Gingrich’s national co-chair, former Governor Sonny Perdue, endorsed Pawlenty the moment Newt’s campaign imploded. And while Rick Perry could make a regional appeal in the South, that’s a long way off, and southern conservatives have long shown a willingness to back conservative Yankees against regional favorites (e.g., Bob Dole over Lamar Alexander in 1996).

In any event, this scenario helps to explain why Pawlenty’s doing what he’s doing: obsessively campaigning in Iowa and not worrying much about his national standing. Even his infamous wimp out on “ObamneyCare” makes sense given Iowans’ well-known antipathy for intraparty negative campaigning, and the more obvious fact that Romney is not his target in that state. The fact that Pawlenty has a clear strategy with a plausible path to victory does not, of course, mean it will work. In a year when Republicans seem to want an ideological crusader as much as a conventional candidate, T-Paw’s lack of charisma—which once led a Minnesota magazine to entitle a sympathetic profile of the governor, “The Cipher”—could be the political death of him. But if he fails, it will be because he couldn’t overcome who he is, not because he’s running a bad campaign for president.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.