Is Iowa Pawlenty’s Last Stand?

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As the Ames straw poll approaches, the chattering class is chattering about whether Tim Pawlenty can carry on after anything but a first-place finish on Saturday. I generally think the straw poll is a silly exercise, but in Pawlenty’s case I can see the grounds for this argument.

In recent weeks Pawlenty’s campaign has been working hard to lower expectations, saying that forward progress is all that matters, to the point where you can see them claiming vindication from even a fourth-place finish. And you can imagine some good arguments in defense of finishing behind Ron Paul or Herman Cain–namely that neither of those candidates stands much chance of becoming the GOP nominee, ergo their success only demonstrates the straw poll’s pointlessness.

And yet: Pawlenty has been almost entirely about Iowa. He’s made dozens of appearances there over many months, and most recently embarked on a frenetic eight-day bus tour covering 26 cities. Overall, he’s campaigned in Iowa longer and harder than almost anyone, perhaps save Rick Santorum. He kicked off his campaign there. He has bragged (though no more) that his home state’s proximity would be an advantage to him. He has advertised on television, radio, billboards, and by mail.

It may still be relatively early in the campaign, but an Iowan with any interest in politics would almost have to try not to encounter Pawlenty somehow. (Nor has the media ignored him, by the way. Relative to his position in the polls, Pawlenty gets quite a lot of ink, both nationally and in Iowa.) All this effort is built around the idea that a candidate like Pawlenty, with low national name recognition and anemic fundraising, can ride the excitement and publicity of an Iowa caucuses win into subsequent primary states.

And so, if Pawlenty can’t pull off an indisputably strong showing among his party’s core activists, it does beg the question: If not now, when? And if not Iowa, where?

Pawlenty might argue that, once voters realize they don’t want a bobblehead as their standard bearer, they will give him a second look. But that argument is about to be complicated by the imminent arrival of another heavyweight candidate, someone with just the proven conservative record that Pawlenty keeps insisting is so essential in a nominee. So how will Pawlenty break through in the weeks and months to come? Let’s just say the answer isn’t obvious.