CHICAGO - With only three weeks left before the Iowa caucuses kick off the voting in the Republican primary, candidates from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry are dreaming of what could be. But Tim Pawlenty can only dream of what could have been.
The former Minnesota governor, once viewed as one of the front-runners in the GOP race, dropped out in August after a dismal third-place showing at the Iowa straw poll. Suffering from a drained war chest, failure to meet expectations, and trailing the likes of straw poll-winner Michele Bachmann and runner-up Ron Paul, Pawlenty withdrew from the race the morning after his resounding defeat in Ames.
What seemed a prudent decision at the time, however, now seems a questionable one, especially when the state of the Republican race is taken into account.
Romney, the one-time front-runner, has floundered lately, losing not only his lead but also his cool. The former Massachusetts governor appeared rattled in a recent interview with FOX News, prompting a slew of bad press.
More importantly for his campaign, despite an impressive fundraising record, the experience of the 2008 race and better organization than most of his rivals, Romney has not increased his support. Instead, the likes of Gingrich, Perry and Herman Cain have all overtaken him at various points in the race.
With Gingrich, who was left for dead this summer and trailed far behind Pawlenty in the polls, now in the lead in key early-states such as Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, some former Pawlenty aides are left to wonder what might have happened if their boss had stayed in the race and wish that he had done so.
"Anyone who has ever worked with Gov. Pawlenty knows he's one of the good guys in American politics and wished he'd stayed in the race," said former Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant, now working for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "But given that the campaign was out of money, I think most of us understood and respected the governor's fiscally responsible decision to not continue to go in debt."
While other former Pawlenty aides acknowledged that his decision to drop out was understandable, that does not mean they agreed with it.
"In terms of profile, no one in this race can beat him on paper: working class, balanced the budget in his state," one former Pawlenty aide said. "For what people are looking for in this race, I think he'd be doing very well right now. There have been so many ups and downs that it's hard to believe he wouldn't have had his ups eventually. This is the most unpredictable race I've ever seen, but I think he'd be doing very well right now.
"If it were up to me I'd have stayed in, run a lean Iowa campaign, and he could be performing well in the debates and heading into the caucuses as the top Romney alternative. Newt is the Romney alternative? Are you kidding me? There's no doubt that Pawlenty would have filled that role better than Newt. Newt is the ultimate Washington insider.
"Once Bachmann started sliding and you realized Perry wasn't the candidate, everyone thought he was going to be, that's when I realized, 'Oh man, wow, we really should have stuck it out.' It'd be great to still be in it right now," the aide added.
Yet another former staffer echoed those same sentiments.
"I was proud to work for the governor because I believed his fiscal and conservative record and ability to connect with people on a personal level would make him the right man for the job. I believe that if he was still in the race today voters would recognize this too and he would be a front runner," the aide said.
But some other former Pawlenty aides see no point in second-guessing about the withdrawal.
"What's done is done in my book," another former Pawlenty staffer said. "There's no putting the toothpaste back in the tube once it is out."
For his part, Pawlenty earlier this fall endorsed Romney. One month after debating him in Iowa as a rival in the GOP race, Pawlenty praised Romney for an "ability to get things done" for the economy and an "unmatched" business background that would be "critical" in helping turn around the country's flailing economy.
At an event in Las Vegas in October, Romney even acknowledged that he had expected Pawlenty to be his "toughest competition."
One former top adviser to Pawlenty said it is "bittersweet" to hear comments like that from Romney.
"It's certainly bittersweet to read the recent reports from Romney and Obama strategists who believed Pawlenty was the strong candidate in the field," the adviser said. "In a sense, Gingrich's emergence as a viable alternative to Romney shows that Pawlenty's strategy was right, but his timing was off. By all accounts, Pawlenty's proving himself to be Romney's best surrogate, which is a testament to how much he improved as a candidate."
Back in the spring, the political pundits seemed to agree with Romney's respect for Pawlenty as a formidable opponent. 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 or flip-flopper reputations like Romney, no ethics issues or extra-marital affairs like Gingrich, no gaffes like Bachmann, no work for President Obama like Jon Huntsman, no fringe status like 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?"
In an interview with ABC News in May, Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics & Governance at the University of Minnesota predicted 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."
But a few months later, it was a disastrous summer day in Ames that proved to be a fatal blow for Pawlenty's campaign. Despite spending around $1.5 million on his Iowa campaign from May through August, Pawlenty finished with 2,293 votes in the straw poll, giving him 14 percent of the total ballots cast, more than 2,500 votes behind Bachmann and only 600 votes ahead of fourth-place finisher Rick Santorum.
Pawlenty told ABC News' Jake Tapper the next morning on "This Week" that he was dropping out of the race because his message "didn't get the kind of traction we needed and hoped for" and voters were "looking for something different." Pawlenty, the first candidate to enter the GOP race back in May, ended up being the first candidate to exit. Whether it was too soon an exit, we will never know.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.