[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]
November has begun. The first voting in Iowa starts in almost exactly two months. Mitt Romney is the front-runner, but he can't crack 25% in the polls. (It's hard to remember a front-runner with any comparable ceiling). Rick Perry has a lot of money, but is suffering from laughably bad debate performances and poor strategic campaign decisions. Herman Cain leads some polls, but even before the sexual harassment allegations that arrived last night, no one seriously thought he had a sliver a chance to win the nomination. Newt Gingrich is a punch line, even if he does not realize it. Jon Huntsman can't get any traction. Ron Paul is Ron Paul. Michele Bachmann's support has collapsed. And Rick Santorum is arguably the most unlikeable person to run for president in the last three decades. Which all begs the question: what if Tim Pawlenty had stayed in the race?
The conventional wisdom several months ago was that a credible challenger with some establishment backing would rise to take on Romney. Pawlenty auditioned for this role, and floundered. He had a weak debate where he didn't attack Romneycare head-on, and his campaigning was leaden. After struggling through a few tough fundraising months, he quit the race, endorsed Romney, and is likely to be, say, a HUD Secretary in a Romney administration.
It seems possible, however, that Pawlenty badly miscalculated. If we have learned one thing from this election, it is that every candidate will get his or her time in the sun. Bachmann did. Cain did. Even Gingrich is likely to, as Ed Kilgore explains here. Surely this would have been true of Pawlenty, who is a much more credible alternative to Romney. What's more, when Pawlenty quit it was not even clear that Perry would be a strong candidate (he has not been). Paul Ryan and Chris Christie were always longshots to enter the race. The scenario we are seeing now was very plausible.
The best objection to this argument has to do with money. Pawlenty could not raise much, and thus would have had trouble competing with Romney and Perry. But he still would have had a shot in Iowa, and a win there would have boosted his fundraising numbers. It's true that Mike Huckabee always had trouble raising cash, even after his Iowa win, but this is a much different election than the last one. In that race, McCain, Romney, and Giuliani all looked like potential nominees. Here, only Romney does. Were he still running, Tim Pawlenty would have a better chance than everyone else (minus Romney and perhaps Perry) of winning. That should have at least been enough to merit staying in.