With the Ames straw poll little more than a month away, the Republican presidential nominating contest is approaching its next major marker. Candidates who show poorly will be under pressure to drop out, as fundraising, buzz, and media attention will diminish.
One candidate will be watched more closely than any other at the straw poll: former two-term Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty was a candidate with momentum leading up to the first televised debate held in New Hampshire on June 14. He had attracted a top-notch staff of operatives, was winning over fundraisers and influential Republican figures, was giving major policy speeches, and had a very successful campaign launch on May 23, which continued for a full week.
But in spite of these positive developments, hard-earned through weeks of planning and execution, national politics is sometimes reduced to moments, and those moments can become unshakeable.
His momentum was immediately stopped by the introduction of a human moment. At that CNN debate, held one day after Pawlenty went on Fox News and coined the term “ObamneyCare” to describe the health-care-reform bill ushered into law by then–Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, he repeatedly refused to defend the phrase and his criticism when standing two places to Romney’s left onstage. It was a cringe-worthy moment. Was he a paper tiger? Were his instincts not right to be the Republican standard-bearer next fall against the incumbent president? The questions were asked for days.
Such a moment created a death spiral for the campaign, which has been difficult to break.
Such a “controversy” generates bad press, which decreases fundraising, which hurts the candidate’s and the campaign staff’s morale. The last month has not been fun at the Minneapolis headquarters.
The Pawlenty campaign has been, I suspect, desperately seeking a new moment, something to break this cycle.
So they decided to offer their candidate to NBC’s Meet the Press on July 10, and he withstood harsh and direct questioning from moderator David Gregory.
Voters who watched Pawlenty on their local NBC affiliate that morning had to be impressed by his strong and sharp answers. He didn’t back down. He described his own record as governor, rejected tax increases as part of a debt-ceiling deal, and attacked the failed economic record of the Obama administration. But from a strategic standpoint, he made two other statements that were viewed by millions and will be replayed hundreds of times, which were important and may set the conditions for his comeback.
First, he said of Mitt Romney, “I don’t think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of Obamacare and then continues to defend it.” Pushed, he continued, “It’s going to be difficult for him to be successful with that on his record.” For a long time, Pawlenty sought to position himself as the anti-Romney candidate for the establishment. This statement helps him do that by making an electability argument versus the current frontrunner.
Second, Pawlenty finally issued sharp (but some would say fair) criticism of his fellow Minnesotan and primary rival in Iowa, Rep. Michele Bachmann, saying, “I respect her, but her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent. It’s nonexistent. We’re not looking for folks who just have speech capabilities. We’re looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion. I’ve done that. She hasn’t.”
Pawlenty is taking a risk in developing a contrast with Bachmann, who has strong and intense Tea Party support and whose poll numbers have shot up nationally, and specifically in Iowa. But Pawlenty’s campaign knows that it needs to catch fire in Iowa, and likely finish in the top two in both the straw poll and in the Iowa caucuses early next year.
Last week, the Pawlenty campaign announced that it was hiring the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is an accomplished political operative in her own right and ran her father’s straw poll campaign in 2007. Additionally, their campaign team has the largest field staff in Iowa and several seasoned high-level operatives with Iowa roots and experience: Terry Nelson, Sara Taylor Fagen, and Eric Woolson. I’d put his Iowa team up against any other candidate’s.
For the Pawlenty campaign, the road back to contention runs through Iowa — and they know that.
As a candidate, Pawlenty still has many strong qualities — executive leadership experience, a strong conservative record, a first-rate team — and he meets the commander-in-chief threshold in a way many other Republican candidates don’t. The fact that he had a bad month early on may prove to be a blessing, as it was for John McCain in 2008. Adversity helps campaigns focus their effort; it brings the team together, and it tests you. The media loves tearing candidates down, but they also love writing comeback stories.
So while the media narrative encapsulated by last week’s New York Times Pawlenty “pre-bituary” begins to take hold, all the Pawlenty campaign can do is redouble their efforts, make progress every day, focus on Iowa, sharpen their message, and create contrasts with their competitors. And that’s what they’re doing.
As my former boss Sen. Conrad Burns (R., Montana) once told a middle-school student when asked what he wanted written on his tombstone, “He ain’t here yet.”
Tim Pawlenty ain’t dead yet. I wouldn’t bet against a comeback.
— Matt Mackowiak is a Washington- and Austin-based Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He has been an adviser to two U.S. senators and one governor, and has worked on two winning campaigns.