On August 13, Tim Pawlenty could make an underdog comeback — or watch his candidacy go under.
That’s the date of the famously influential Ames Straw Poll, an event where thousands of Iowa voters gather to support Republican primary candidates. For Pawlenty, who has all the right credentials on paper but so far has failed to sell himself as a candidate to many voters, it’s a crucial test of his electability.
“He needs a first- or second-place finish,” says Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director and the editor of TheIowaRepublican.com. “Third place has been a deadly spot for people to finish in the straw poll. If you look back four years ago, Sam Brownback finished third and didn’t make it to the caucus. If you go back [to 2000], Elizabeth Dole didn’t make it to the caucus stage.”
On the surface, Pawlenty’s path to a first- or second-place finish at Ames looks rocky. Iowa-born Michele Bachmann is gaining momentum in the Hawkeye State right now. Rick Perry may or may not be a candidate by the time of the Ames poll, but his supporters are already organizing to try to give him an impressive showing. Ron Paul, who finished fifth in 2007’s straw poll, is fighting hard this time, as shown by his campaign’s willingness to spend $31,000 to reserve the prime location outside the Ames arena where the straw poll is held for his supporters. The next-best spot sold for $18,000.
But Pawlenty still has one advantage: his Iowa organization.
“His campaign has made a huge investment in grassroots organization, building the apparatus that it takes to actually motivate people . . . to go to Ames,” says Robinson, noting that Pawlenty has “the best-organized campaign in the state,” with a larger staff than any of the other candidates.
“He doesn’t clearly have the momentum,” Robinson acknowledges. “But as long as the people already signed up get to Ames, I think he could finish well. I think he could surprise.”
An Iowa Republican operative thinks that Pawlenty’s “superior” organization could help him leapfrog over Michele Bachmann and get the approximately 3,500 votes needed for an Ames victory. The operative is dubious that Bachmann could round up enough voters.
The operative notes that in 2008, Mitt Romney’s centralized campaign won the day. “I bet Romney could tell you 95 percent of the voters he had by name. [Mike] Huckabee could probably tell you 5 percent,” the operative says. “That’s because Huckabee had the homeschool groups organizing themselves, [and the] Bible studies, churches, but never really put it down on paper. Bachmann’s running that kind of campaign, and it’s risky, but she’s a candidate who could do it if she wanted to.”
In addition to organization, the Pawlenty campaign has taken several significant steps to amp up the candidate’s presence in Iowa. According to an e-mail sent out last week by campaign manager Nick Ayers, Pawlenty will spend 20 of the next 30 days in the state. Rolling out in a brand-new campaign RV, Pawlenty is doing an average of ten events a day. “We wanted to introduce the governor to as many Iowans as possible. After voters meet the governor, they usually like him and want to support him,” says spokesman Alex Conant.
Pawlenty is changing his Iowa routine. Instead of focusing on meeting influential local leaders privately and working to develop the campaign’s organization, he’s concentrating now on public, open-press events. He’s also giving more interviews to local media, speaking to editorial boards and radio and TV stations.
The campaign has spent $400,000 buying airtime through the last day before Ames. Professional fliers have been shipped out in the state as well.
“Having TV ads, direct mail — the look, feel, sound of a front-running campaign — is actually very important for the Pawlenty campaign,” Robinson says. “His whole campaign is structured on being a different version of Mitt Romney, an establishment candidate who can beat Obama, run the ads [and] a professional campaign. I think if Pawlenty can show people that, look, I’m capable of running a campaign, and maybe I don’t have the same baggage as Romney, I think he could peel off a lot of those supporters.”
On the trail, Pawlenty’s rhetoric has slightly shifted. He has begun more aggressively touting the need for experience. And he delivered a warning shot yesterday, saying, “The main way we’re going to goof this up as Republicans is to nominate the wrong candidate.”
Right now, the campaign is downplaying expectations and rejecting the notion that Pawlenty must win first or second in the poll to remain a viable candidate. “We want to show progress in Ames, [do] better than sixth or seventh,” Conant says, referring to Pawlenty’s position in recent Iowa polls — although the latest polls have shown Pawlenty up to third place.
The campaign confirmed yesterday that Pawlenty would attend two September events, a not-so-subtle sign that, regardless of how he fares at Ames, Pawlenty intends to soldier on. “The ultimate goal here is to do well in the caucuses, which are still six months off,” Conant says.
Pawlenty, a huge hockey fan, often notes that he can throw elbows with the best of them if pushed. But as Ames nears, Pawlenty is fighting to avoid being sent to the penalty box by Iowa voters.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.