Failure in Iowa Straw Poll Could Doom Pawlenty’s Candidacy

Republican Tim Pawlenty has done everything usually needed to become a top-tier contender in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. So far, there’s little sign his work is paying off.

That has raised the stakes for the former Minnesota governor to make a good showing in the Aug. 13 Iowa Straw Poll, a carnival-like contest run by the state’s Republican Party that tests the early strength of presidential aspirants.

“I think he’s got to win the straw poll, or he’s going to be in tough shape,” said Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican who ran Mitt Romney’s 2008 statewide campaign and is unaligned now. “This is everything for him. For that reason, the straw poll is going to be something that is highly watched.”

Pawlenty, 50, has focused on Iowa since he began pursuing the presidency. He has gained endorsements from state lawmakers and signed up some of Iowa’s best political operatives. He was the first 2012 candidate to run television ads in the state, and has dutifully attended numerous local functions, including one this week where he was flanked by two artificial palm trees and a tiki bar as he spoke to a crowd at a banquet hall in Ames.

For all his efforts, his support stood at 6 percent in an Iowa Poll last month of likely Republican caucus participants sponsored by the Des Moines Register. Leading the survey with 23 percent was Romney, the former Massachusetts governor making his second presidential run; U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had 22 percent.

Fundraising Figures

Pawlenty’s political standing also took a hit when his campaign reported $4.2 million in donations through June 30 -- less than a fourth of the $18.3 million raised by Romney, the leader in nationwide Republican polls, and less than the $4.5 million collected by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

Bachmann didn’t officially enter the race until June 27 and doesn’t plan to announce a fundraising report until July 15. She already has complicated Pawlenty’s bid by embracing a similar strategy: spotlighting the Feb. 6 Iowa caucuses as the contest that will propel her candidacy.

These factors have intensified the straw poll’s importance for Pawlenty -- and caused some to suggest that a poor showing could effectively doom his quest for the White House.

Romney, who won the straw poll four years ago only to finish second in the caucuses five months later, has decided to pass on the event this year. So have former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor. That has limited the straw poll field to candidates including Pawlenty, Bachmann, Paul, former pizza chain executive Herman Cain and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

‘Minnesota Twins’

Finishing well behind Bachmann could “force Pawlenty out of the race,” said Gross, Iowa’s 2002 Republican gubernatorial candidate. Referring to Bachmann and Pawlenty’s mutual home state and its professional baseball team, he cracked, “There are some Minnesota Twins fans in Iowa, but not enough.”

Pawlenty is scheduled to spend about half of July in Iowa, trying to generate momentum as the straw poll approaches.

“We don’t need to win it, but we need to show progress,” he said in an interview yesterday at his campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. “We view the straw poll as the kickoff to the real, full campaign season.”

Whatever his finish in the straw poll, Pawlenty said, he has no plans to leave the campaign. In the past, some candidates have dropped out after finishing below expectations.

“We don’t plan on being one of those,” he said. Referring to a weed and grass killer, he said, “They’re not going to put the political Roundup on us.”

‘Pretty Critical’

Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa who so far is neutral in the presidential race, termed the straw poll “pretty critical” for Pawlenty. While a close second to Bachmann or another candidate would probably “not be a death knell” for Pawlenty, a poorer showing could be, he said.

The straw poll, which doubles as a fundraiser for the state party, requires admission tickets. Better-financed candidates often pick up those costs and provide bus rides to Iowa State University in Ames, the event’s venue. They also lure supporters with entertainment and free food (Pawlenty plans to serve Famous Dave’s barbeque).

The results hardly represent a referendum; Romney won the 2008 straw poll with just 4,516 votes. Still, the contest provides a gauge of a campaign’s organizational skills, which are crucial to generating turnout for the caucuses.

Party Goal

In his most recent pitches, Pawlenty has urged Iowa Republicans to keep in mind the party’s overarching goal of ousting President Barack Obama from office.

“We want to make sure that the person that Iowa puts forward in this race is not just interesting in that moment, but is somebody who can become the nominee and can defeat” Obama in 2012, Pawlenty said at his Ames appearance earlier this week.

Stressing his record as a chief executive, he told his listeners that they should support someone who isn’t “only giving speeches and offering failed amendments.”

His comments seemed aimed at Bachmann. As a state legislator before winning her House seat in 2006, she unsuccessfully pushed to amend Minnesota’s constitution to bar legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In Congress, she has emerged as a favorite speaker at rallies sponsored by Tea Party activists and hasn’t shepherded any major legislation into law.

Pawlenty insisted to reporters after his Ames speech that he wasn’t referring to Bachmann, 55.

‘My Strengths’

“These comments are just about my strengths that I bring to the race,” he said. “One of the things that voters in Iowa and across the country want to know is ‘Do you just flap your jaw, or do you have results that you can back up these statements with?’”

He more willingly took on Bachmann in an interview yesterday with the Des Moines Register. Referring to her legislative record, he said, “as to specific results that have been achieved, I’m not sure what they would be.”

Pawlenty has spent more days campaigning in Iowa than all but one -- Santorum -- of the other Republicans, according to an accounting done by the Des Moines Register.

“I think he’s doing the right things, but it’s just going to take some more time,” said Tony Osmundson, an agricultural equipment salesman from Ames who is tentatively backing him.

Enthusiasm Gap

Gross, though, said Pawlenty is lagging partly because he is “not a very exciting individual, so he doesn’t generate a lot of enthusiasm.”

Pawlenty also has erred by trying to appeal to too many factions among Republicans, Gross said. “When you try to be everything to everybody, you are nothing to anybody,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s happened to him.”

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, was similarly behind at this point in 2007. Earlier this week, Pawlenty’s campaign announced that it had added Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah, as a senior political adviser.

Pawlenty got poor reviews from analysts following the first major Republican candidate debate on June 13, held in New Hampshire. The criticism largely concerned his decision not to take Romney to task for helping to enact a Massachusetts health-care law that is similar to the national health-care overhaul Obama pushed through Congress last year.

At Pawlenty’s Iowa campaign headquarters yesterday, Republican Bill Campbell told the candidate that he thought he needed to strengthen his “demeanor.”

Pawlenty told the audience of about 125 that, as a hockey player, he has “probably been in more fights than all these candidates combined.”

He added: “The loudest guy or woman in a bar usually isn’t the toughest. They’re usually just the loudest.”

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