Tim Pawlenty is making it official today. For a candidate in the low single digits, he’s been given strong odds for winning the nomination by some analysts. George F. Will said a couple of weeks ago that the former Minnesota governor is one of three people who might be sworn in as president in 2013 — and the other possibilities include only one actual candidate, Barack Obama (the other was Mitch Daniels). The rapidly congealing conventional wisdom is that all the no-shows in the field benefit the former Minnesota governor.
There’s no doubt that Pawlenty has real strengths. He compiled an impressive record as governor, and is a fiscal, social, and national-security conservative. He has proven blue-state appeal and comes from a part of the country — the upper Midwest — where the GOP has growth potential. Yet he still hasn’t made much of an impression with voters. A common criticism is that he lacks gravity and pizzazz. One reason that there will now be such a push for other candidates to get in the race is that Pawlenty is still a pallid presence in the field. It’s possible to see how he gets the nomination on paper, but if it’s actually to happen, he will have to answer these five key questions.
1. Can he beat back Michele Bachmann?
For the mainstream media and pundits, the likely candidacy of Michele Bachmann is an entertaining sidelight. For Tim Pawlenty, it’s potentially a herald of doom.
Pawlenty is announcing his candidacy in Iowa. It’s no accident. A strong performance in the caucuses is key to his path to the nomination. Over the last 30 years, Republican nomination battles have had a predictable pattern — one candidate wins Iowa, another wins New Hampshire, and whoever of the two wins South Carolina gets the nomination. Pawlenty is, in theory, strongly positioned in Iowa. He’s from a neighboring state, he’s been working it on the ground, and as an evangelical, he has the right profile to appeal to social conservatives there. “He has real credibility on the social issues and a faith testimony that will resonate among the grassroots,” a prominent social conservative says.
Yet there’s potential trouble on the launching pad. Rep. Michele Bachmann is also from Minnesota and has a strong bond with social conservatives and tea-party backers. Her fundraising machine, even before it’s ginned up during a presidential run, is formidable. If she gets in, she could easily steal Pawlenty’s thunder in Iowa and deal a severe blow to his candidacy.
A Republican donor who supports Mitt Romney puts the most dire spin on it: “There is no plausible path to the GOP nomination for Pawlenty absent a win in Iowa. Thus, Bachmann poses an existential threat to T-Paw.” One analogy would be the way Pat Buchanan beat Phil Gramm in the Louisiana caucuses right at the outset of the 1996 nomination battle. Buchanan wasn’t much of a threat to win the nomination, but his victory effectively ended Gramm’s campaign, which had seemed the most formidable challenge to frontrunner Bob Dole. Mitt Romney has to be pulling for Bachmann to make the plunge and thrive among former Mike Huckabee voters in Iowa.
2. Can he find the right pitch in appealing to conservatives?
His speeches to conservatives have been notable for their groan-inducing panders. At CPAC in 2010, he led off with a tasteless joke about how conservatives needed to borrow a page from Tiger Woods’s wife and “take a nine iron and smash the window of big government in this country.” He finished that speech with an attack on brie-eating and Chablis-drinking. This year at CPAC, he wasn’t as cringe-worthy, although he did say at one point, “This ain’t about easy,” a line he’s repeated elsewhere. What is it about poor grammar that Pawlenty thinks is so appealing to the conservative grassroots?
The problem for Pawlenty is obvious. In appealing to conservatives, he potentially has competition from Bachmann, who rose to prominence as a bomb-thrower, and from Herman Cain and Rick Santorum, both of whom are talk-radio personalities (in addition to their other credentials). “The issue is going to be, in a field with so many charismatic characters,” the prominent social conservative says, “he’s got to figure out how to stand out and break out while remaining true to himself.”