Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Recent News
Home / News / In a few weeks’ time, Bachmann has upended Pawlenty’s long and painstaking presidential bid
Late last month former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an appearance on the popular MSNBC show “Morning Joe.” The interview was timed to coincide with a major foreign policy speech that the GOP presidential hopeful was slated to give at the Council on Foreign Relations later that day.

In a few weeks’ time, Bachmann has upended Pawlenty’s long and painstaking presidential bid

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has semi-officially been running for president since June 2009, has seen his campaign flounder recently. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Late last month former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty made an appearance on the popular MSNBC show “Morning Joe.” The interview was timed to coincide with a major foreign policy speech that the GOP presidential hopeful was slated to give at the Council on Foreign Relations later that day.

But co-host Mika Brzezinski opened the discussion with a question far afield from terrorist havens or nuclear deterrence. “Michele Bachmann,” Brzezinski began, “she’s been pulling it together, and a lot of people are talking about her, and she’s doing well in certain polls. What do you make of her candidacy, and how does that affect yours?”

If Pawlenty was annoyed by the question, he managed to cover it well in his response. “Well, I know Congresswoman Bachmann,” he said. “I’ve campaigned for her. I’ve respected her over the years and worked with her over the years. … But everybody brings something different to the table. One of the things that I bring to the table is a record of executive leadership and results.”

The exchange is emblematic of Pawlenty’s struggles on the presidential campaign trail in recent weeks. The two-term governor has been semi-officially running for president since June 2009. That was when he announced that he would not be seeking a third term and began making frequent trips to the early battleground states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

Pawlenty put together a team of battle-tested operatives, including campaign manager Nick Ayers, the highly regarded former executive director of the Republican Governors Association. He spread money to candidates across the country during the 2010 campaign season; released a memoir through a major Christian publishing house; and picked up endorsements from the likes of Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and South Carolina Rep. Joe “You Lie” Wilson. In the early stages of the 2012 contest, Pawlenty won near-universal praise from pundits and political strategists for rolling out a model national campaign apparatus.

By contrast Bachmann first floated the notion of a presidential campaign in January. Her closest political adviser is believed to be her husband, Marcus, a Christian counselor. She was widely ridiculed in the early weeks of her campaign for claiming that the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in New Hampshire.

But six months after it became clear that there would be two Minnesotans in the 2012 presidential mix, Pawlenty’s campaign is floundering and Bachmann’s national political star is ascendant. “There is no doubt that Tim Pawlenty isn’t making significant headway and hasn’t done so in many weeks, if not many months,” said Chris Georgacas, a former state party chairman who chaired Pawlenty’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. “Although it’s premature to write his political obituary, it could be said that he’s going to face an acid test in the next couple months.”

The reversal of fortune became manifest at last month’s GOP presidential debate in New Hampshire. Bachmann won widespread plaudits for a confident, gaffe-free performance. Pawlenty, meanwhile, elicited ridicule for failing to repeat his vigorous criticisms of “Obamneycare” from the day before when he had the opportunity to do so to rival Mitt Romney’s face. Several state polls conducted since that debate have found Bachmann polling second only to frontrunner Romney among likely GOP primary voters, while Pawlenty remains mired in single digits. Most notably, the first poll released by the Des Moines Register found Bachmann in a dead heat with Romney in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Pawlenty was in sixth place with support from just 6 percent of respondents.

“Her performance in the New Hampshire debate has been given a lot of credit, probably deservedly so, for making Republicans aware that she is more than a Republican in a cheerleader outfit,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University. “She’s articulate. She can talk on her feet.”

Around the same time, Bachmann also hired Ed Rollins, the longtime Republican campaign consultant best known for his work on the 1984 Reagan-Bush re-election campaign.

Smith figures Bachmann’s sudden ascendancy has to be galling for Pawlenty. “It has to be driving him nuts,” Smith said. “He’s got to feel like he’s earned this spot, and she’s about to steal it.”

Indeed, Bachmann’s emergence as a credible candidate presents the most fundamental of hurdles for Pawlenty’s presidential ambitions. For starters, as a native of Waterloo, Iowa, she negates any border-state bump that he might have received. “I often say that everything I needed to know I learned in Iowa,” Bachmann said in a speech in Waterloo last month announcing her official entry into the presidential contest. “It was at Hawthorne and Valley Park elementary schools and my home, both a short distance from here, where those Iowan roots were firmly planted.”

In Iowa and elsewhere, the abiding problem for Pawlenty is that Bachmann may be a more natural fit for the significant anti-Romney segment of the GOP base. She has proven adept at exploiting the health care reform backlash and is among the country’s most popular politicians within Tea Party circles. Those dedicated party activists are likely to play an outsize role in the Iowa caucuses, because the process attracts fewer — and more fervent — participants than in primary states.

National observers have been noting for months that the viability of Pawlenty’s campaign hinges mainly on his performance in Iowa, a state where social conservatives thoroughly dominate the party apparatus. In the past week Pawlenty has sought to buttress his standing in those circles by hiring Sarah Huckabee — the daughter of 2008 Iowa caucuses winner Mike Huckabee — as an adviser.

Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, believes that Pawlenty’s campaign was initially worried about former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin swooping in late and siphoning off the conservative anti-Romney votes. “In his mind as he was planning, she was the really strong social conservative who he was going to have to worry about,” Sanders said. “Bachmann threw that for a loop.”

Theories differ on why Pawlenty’s candidacy has failed to take off. But most political observers agree that he hasn’t struck likely GOP primary voters as a principled conservative with strong beliefs. “What Pawlenty hasn’t convinced people of is that he is genuine,” Georgacas said, “that he is the guy who can be trusted to rein in government, to take the fight to Barack Obama.”

Jeff Blodgett, a veteran DFL strategist who oversaw Obama’s Minnesota campaign in 2008, offers a similar assessment. “On the one hand you have Michele Bachmann, who is a conviction politician,” Blodgett said. “Certainly not convictions I share, but she’s a true believer. Pawlenty seems to be calculating out every move. I think that’s the biggest difference in why one is catching fire and the other is floundering.”

While Pawlenty has long professed not to be worried about poor poll numbers, arguing that they are simply reflective of low name recognition, time may be running short to generate some momentum. The Iowa caucuses are now just six months away. An early indication of whether Pawlenty’s reportedly well-organized Iowa operation is paying dividends will come next month when the Ames straw poll is conducted. While the gathering is a mere beauty contest, with candidates often accused of all but buying votes, Pawlenty will need to make a strong showing.

That’s because there have already been rumors of fundraising troubles for his campaign. In the second quarter of the year, he raised an unspectacular $4.2 million. If he can’t show some signs of momentum, donors might grow reluctant to write big checks to a campaign that is not considered competitive.

“He’s a candidate who has to do well early on in order to move forward,” Sanders said. “Frankly, if Pawlenty stumbles coming out of the gate, then whatever limited money he has is going to completely dry up, and nobody’s going to pay any attention to him.”

Leave a Reply