Pawlenty remains what he’s always been: a candidate, perhaps the only one in the field, who can appeal to every faction within the Republican Party and draw an attempted veto of none of them. He remains a very viable candidate in a field without many of them and with no strong frontrunner. ~Jonathan Bernstein
Bernstein makes the best case for Pawlenty that can be made, and it is possible that Pawlenty has it in him as a candidate to recover between now and the caucuses. The question is whether he will be able to continue raising money through the fall. If he does as poorly at Ames next month as his own campaign suggests he might, that seems unlikely. Christian Heinze pointed out a few days ago how Pawlenty’s campaign is lowering expectations for his showing next month:
And again — by starting at an artificially low point, the campaign is trying to spin a 2nd, 3rd. or 4th place finish as a game-changing rise from the ashes.
It makes sense that the Pawlenty campaign wants to do this. They would naturally want to put an end to the drumbeat of stories saying that Pawlenty is doomed, but that doesn’t work very well when the campaign is desperately trying to spin what would normally be considered a failure as a revival in his political fortunes. The official, declared field includes eleven candidates, but of these there are only eight candidates that are going to have any significant impact on the race, and just five of these will compete in the straw poll. According to Pawlenty campaign spin, a result that is just a little better than an awful sixth- or seventh-place finish next month should be considered a success. No one else believes that.
Alex Roarty at Hotline observed:
It’s a meager expectation for a candidate who has pinned his hopes of winning the Republican primary on succeeding in the Iowa caucuses.
The straw poll winner doesn’t always win Iowa, and sometimes the eventual nominee doesn’t do well in Iowa, but I don’t know of any candidate who staked his campaign’s fortunes on Iowa who went on to win the nomination after flopping in the state. It’s true that the elder Bush finished third in the straw poll and the caucuses in ’87-’88, but he was the Vice President and he hadn’t made Iowa the centerpiece of his campaign. Anything less than a second-place finish for Pawlenty will be a signal to donors and voters that the “best campaign organization in Iowa” doesn’t amount to very much.
Scott Conroy’s report on the straw poll described Pawlenty’s predicament:
A win in Ames — or, just maybe, a close second-place showing — could finally provide some momentum for Pawlenty, but anything less would likely be regarded as the first nail in his political coffin.
Someone could object that managing expectations is what a smart campaign does, but the need to lower expectations so dramatically tends to confirm the impression that the campaign is going nowhere fast. In the weeks leading up to the straw poll four years ago, Huckabee was telling reporters that he needed to finish in the top three to be credible as a candidate. Pawlenty has tried to brush off his poor polling by pointing to Huckabee’s example, but the Pawlenty campaign is now announcing to the world that they are in worse shape than Huckabee was at this time four years ago. Pawlenty now aspires to be as much of a success in Iowa as Sam Brownback, and he may not achieve even achieve that.
Pawlenty theoretically “can appeal to every faction within the Republican Party and draw an attempted veto of none of them,” which is what makes him “very viable” in Bernstein’s estimation, but his appeal to each faction often feels forced, and especially on foreign policy he has badly misread the public mood. He has embraced neoconservatism without wanting the baggage that goes along with it, but his denunciation of “isolationism” and support for “moral clarity” create the impression that he is just reciting the lines he has been given. He has crafted his foreign policy rhetoric to satisfy a small group of the party’s foreign policy pundits and wonks, which might not normally be a problem, but he is doing so at a time when the substance of what he’s offering is not appealing. His economic plan was a deficit-expanding supply-side fantasy. It was as if his campaign put it together for the sole purpose of pleasing the editors of The Wall Street Journal rather than voters in Iowa (or middle-class voters anywhere for that matter). Testimonials about his evangelical Christianity notwithstanding, Pawlenty hasn’t had that much to say that addresses the priorities of social and religious conservatives.
The most important obstacle Pawlenty faces is that he is mainly running on competence in a field where the front-runner has an equal or better claim to being an effective executive, so the voters that care most about competence are already gravitating to another major candidate. If he wants to be able to compete, he needs to rally a lot of the voters more interested in ideology than competence. Before Bachmann entered the race, that was plausible. Now those voters have somewhere else to go, and Pawlenty isn’t going to win them over by emphasizing Bachmann’s inexperience.
Update: Weigel commented yesterday on Pawlenty’s “better than sixth place” plan:
Two of those candidates, Romney and Gingrich, are not buying space or tickets for Ames. Pawlenty’s “better than sixth” goal is ridiculously achievable — he needs to stay ahead of Santorum and McCotter, who are competing, and not fall behind Perry, who’s doing well in polls but probably won’t be in the race yet. The point of “better than sixth” is to tee us up for a fourth place showing or spin a third place showing behind Bachmann and Paul as a victory against a candidate who’s going to burn out and a candidate who can only do well in straw polls.