First In, First Out: How Tim Pawlenty Went From Contender to Pretender

Aug 15, 2011 3:28pm

ap tim pawlenty straw poll ll 110815 wb First In, First Out: How Tim Pawlenty Went From Contender to Pretender

ABC News’ Matthew Jaffe (@matthewbjaffe) reports:

Ultimately, it all came down to the actual candidate, as it should. People just weren’t all that in to Tim Pawlenty.

Back in May, before the former Minnesota governor threw his hat into the presidential ring, the pundits talked up Pawlenty as the possible chief rival to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney. Pawlenty, they said, had it all: a top-notch campaign staff, no skeletons in the closet, a resume highlighted by two terms as governor of a blue state, a blue-collar background, few if any real enemies. Unlike his opponents, he didn’t have any obvious downside – no health care plan like Romney, no gaffes like Michele Bachmann, no work for President Obama like Jon Huntsman, no fringe stature like Ron Paul.

On paper, it almost looked like the perfect candidacy. In May Stanley Kurtz made the case for Pawlenty in National Review Online.

“Tim Pawlenty is a great candidate,” Kurtz wrote. “It’s just plain nuts not to see this, emphasize it, and take advantage of it. Instead of pining away for Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan or Scott Walker to enter the race, why not wake up and recognize that Tim Pawlenty has already got everything the GOP is looking for; with two successful gubernatorial terms worth of experience to boot. What’s not to like?”

Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics & Governance at the University of Minnesota predicted to ABC News that Pawlenty would be a “formidable candidate.”

“You start to go through all the candidates – almost all of them have really fatal flaws,” Jacobs said. “Pawlenty doesn’t have a fatal flaw.”

Despite his low poll numbers, the consensus view about Pawlenty was that sooner or later he would start to gain traction among the Republican base – at least that’s what he thought.

“Even now, only about 50 percent of the Republicans nationally even know my name,” he told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour on “This Week” in May. “So we have to get the name ID up and then convert that, of course, to support.”

“But if you’re a serious candidate for president, that will happen naturally over time,” he vowed.

And Pawlenty was absolutely putting in the time. He was the first candidate to announce his run for the nomination, with a well-planned roll out in May in Des Moines.

“We are going to win it and it’s going to start right here in Iowa,” Pawlenty said in his May 23 announcement, promising to tell Americans “the hard truths.”

He then traveled from Iowa to Florida to Washington to New York, holding countless events, meeting with donors, appearing on national and local media broadcasts, and delivering meaty policy speeches. He unveiled TV ads, radio ads, and internet ads. In short, he was doing everything right.

There was only one problem: the candidate himself. He just wasn’t that good.

When he hit the campaign trail, Pawlenty failed to energize crowds. Compared to, say, Bachmann, Pawlenty’s events were a snooze. He used terms like “deep doo-doo” and “manure spreader in a windstorm” – that was his way of being edgy.

When it came to debates, he was no better. The first sign of trouble came in New Hampshire when Pawlenty – one day after coining the term “ObamneyCare” – declined to take on Romney at a nationally-televised debate. The moderator – CNN’s John King – went so far as to challenge Pawlenty’s manhood, but still he passed.

When he tried to stock his campaign coffers, donors hesitated. When it came time to report his fundraising results in mid-July, Pawlenty announced a $4.5 million haul, but a chunk of that was reserved for the general election if he made it that far.

The signs of desperation started to emerge. He admitted screwing up at the debate, tweeting days later, “On seizing debate opportunity re: healthcare: Me 0, Mitt 1. On doing healthcare reform the right way as governor: Me 1, Mitt 0.” Of course, the nation saw his debate debacle, but the nation did not see his follow-up tweet. His national campaign chairman Vin Weber had to apologize for saying that Bachmann would be “very hard to beat” in Iowa because she had “sex appeal.”

After a Des Moines Register poll showed him in sixth place in late June, it was clear that Pawlenty was struggling. With abysmal poll numbers, a weak debate performance, disappointing fundraising numbers, and a gaffe by a top adviser, there wasn’t much left to do other than blame the national media for somehow missing the real story. In an email to supporters in late July, Pawlenty’s campaign manager Nick Ayers directed people to a story from Radio Iowa entitled “Pawlenty’s ‘Executive Experience’ Mantra Drawing Supporters” and quipped, “Funny how vastly different it is from the national media narrative.”

Except the national media narrative turned out to be exactly right: Pawlenty was in trouble. But still he wasn’t done just yet. If there was any event where Pawlenty might be able to turn around his campaign, it was the Iowa straw poll. The straw poll, many felt, played precisely to his strengths: while he might not inspire the passion that Bachmann and Paul did, if there was any format where he could do well, it was one where organization was vital, where a good campaign plan was key, where time and effort were important.

In the weeks before the Ames event, Pawlenty logged around 3,000 miles in Iowa, urging voters to support him at the straw poll. He aired a flurry of ads. He devoted nearly $1.5 million to his effort in the Hawkeye State.

But when the votes were tallied on Saturday in Ames, Pawlenty finished far behind Bachmann and Paul, mired in third place – closer to Rick Santorum than he was to the top two. Despite an email to supporters after the poll that touted his “strong showing” and said the poll was “just the beginning,” there were real questions to be asked. Namely, if after all that travel, all those ads, all that organization, all those resources, he had still failed to do well in Ames, then where would he possibly do well?

That had to be the question that Pawlenty, his campaign, and – maybe most importantly – his donors were asking themselves as Saturday turned to Sunday. Judging by Pawlenty’s decision Sunday morning to drop out of the race, we know how they answered it.

In the end, the “hard truth” for Pawlenty was this: he may be a nice guy, he may have had a great campaign staff, he may have followed the campaign playbook to the letter, but he was simply not a good candidate. And when all was said and done, that is why the first candidate in turned out to be the first candidate out. 

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