Tim Pawlenty’s summer is off to a rough start. His campaign kickoff in late May was well-received and also well-timed, coming just after Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels each decided not to seek the Republican nomination, and around the moment of Newt Gingrich’s foot-in-mouth implosion, all of which placed Pawlenty in a fine position to emerge as the credible alternative to Mitt Romney. But June has delivered little sign of traction for the former Minnesota governor, and maybe even some lost ground. His campaign kickoff and the attendant publicity barely nudged his poll ratings. A prominent conservative writer seemed to come away underwhelmed. And in the first big Republican debate of the campaign, Pawlenty appeared to chicken out of a telegraphed attack on Mitt Romney’s health care plan, reinforcing doubts about his toughness.
Now comes the latest poll out of Iowa by the venerable Des Moines Register, and it’s another bummer for T-Paw. The survey’s big news is that Tea Party upstart-slash-media sensation Michele Bachmann is effectively tied with Mitt Romney, while Pawlenty limps along near the bottom at a measly 6 percent. Despite his numerous trips to the state so far this year, Pawlenty runs behind even the likes of Ron Paul and Herman Cain in Iowa; even’s Newt Gingrich’s month of nightmare publicity hasn’t been enough to make him sub-Pawlenty in the polls. And given that the political class expects Pawlenty to perform well in Iowa, the poll looks like a potential omen of doom.
Pawlenty’s campaign is dismissing the survey as”a flashback to four years ago.” That was when the eventual 2008 Iowa caucus winner, Mike Huckabee, was running running at just 4 percent in the state at an equivalent time in the cycle. Like Pawlenty, Huckabee had been actively campaigning in Iowa at the time. But Huckabee lacked the high-powered team of Iowa supporters that Pawlenty has been bragging about, and, as I recall, he also drew somewhat less media coverage at the time.
“The Huck,” as Pawlenty awkwardly called him in a recent debate, also wasn’t struggling quite so hard back them to establish himself as a heavyweight. In 2007 the former Arkansas governor seemed content to start out quietly, making a pitch focused mainly on social conservatism. Pawlenty, by contrast, touts his broad appeal to all segments of the party, and uses bombastic web videos to brand himself as a serious heavyweight, not a scrappy underdog. Pawlenty, in other words, has implicitly created higher expectations for himself than Huckabee ever did, and his supporters and donors are surely starting to ask why it’s taking so long to meet them.
Finally, if you had to imagine a candidate catching fire, Huckabee-style, this time around, it’s a lot easier to see Bachmann, or even Cain, in that role than Pawlenty. Those two candidates fit the mold of the unconventional, anti-establishment figure who tends to thrive in Iowa far better than the nice guy from Minnesota. That doesn’t mean his cause in Iowa is hopeless. But Pawlenty’s Iowa-or-bust strategy is looking like an increasingly high-risk proposition.