Shrinking Republican Field Benefits Pawlenty

by Stuart Rothenberg May 25, 2011 · 11:27 AM EDT

That former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is widely regarded as one of the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination says a great deal about the GOP field.

Pawlenty is an articulate, personable former two-term executive of a swing state, which means that under almost any circumstances he’d be seen as a serious candidate.

But this cycle, Pawlenty is so much more. Now that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has announced that he’ll forgo a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are the only two Republican contenders who have much of a chance of both being nominated and winning the White House.

Pawlenty’s strength in the race isn’t the passion that he generates or the breadth of his existing appeal. It’s the fact that in a race where every contender and potential contender has considerable baggage, Pawlenty starts off with slightly less.

In other words, Pawlenty’s strength in the race for the White House nod is that he isn’t a Mormon, was never nominated for an ambassadorship by President Barack Obama, never pushed a health care plan with an individual mandate, doesn’t have a wife who is opposed to him running and isn’t so conservative that he would be unacceptable to swing voters.

Being broadly acceptable isn’t a bad thing, of course, but basing a presidential campaign scenario on it is a little like kissing your sister — it isn’t exactly satisfying.

Pawlenty’s electoral history in his two gubernatorial campaigns shows the limits of his appeal.

He was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, each time drawing less than 47 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race. While he did win two elections in a swing state that leans Democratic (including in 2006, a terrible year for the GOP), he didn’t draw close to a majority of the votes cast in either one.

The calendar creates an interesting situation for Pawlenty, and recent events have improved his prospects. Clearly, as the former governor of a neighboring state, he must do well in Iowa.

The nascent campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gives every indication of writing off Iowa and of hoping to jump-start his bid in New Hampshire. While Romney’s allies continue to downplay expectations in Iowa, most insiders expect him to play in the caucuses.

The former Massachusetts governor won a quarter of the vote in the 2008 caucuses, and given the lightweight field in 2012, he will have a hard time writing off next year’s contest. If he were to win Iowa, he’d be positioned to wrap up the nomination in New Hampshire, where he finished second to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.

While the exits of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Daniels theoretically create more opportunities for Romney in Iowa, they are even more important for Pawlenty, who starts off less well-known and could benefit from conservatives looking for a serious alternative to Romney. This is particularly true if Romney’s ceiling in the caucuses is around 25 percent or 30 percent, as many believe.

With fewer credible candidates in the race, the GOP vote is likely to be less fractured, making it more difficult for Romney to finish first in the caucuses because of his ceiling.

Doesn’t the smaller field also make the Iowa caucuses a “must win” for Pawlenty? I’m not sure.

If Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) runs for the GOP nomination, as expected, she could well win the caucuses, which have tended to be dominated by conservative evangelicals. That’s a group that Pawlenty can compete for — he was raised as a Catholic but is now an evangelical — but with whom Bachmann should have an advantage.

Even if the Iowa-born Bachmann were to win the caucuses, most serious journalists and analysts might discount her showing as an aberration rather than an indication that she can be nominated. Given that, even a strong second-place finish by Pawlenty in Iowa might give him some momentum going into the Granite State.

Pawlenty also may benefit in fundraising from recent GOP decisions not to run.

Many key GOP campaign fundraisers and contributors have remained on the sidelines, waiting for decisions first by Barbour and Daniels. Since those backers didn’t gravitate to Romney initially, they must be looking for someone else, and Pawlenty would now seem to be the most credible alternative to the Massachusetts Republican.

Romney, of course, remains the early frontrunner in the GOP race, but most of the other hopefuls start far behind Romney and Pawlenty as potential nominees.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) disastrous campaign launch seriously damages an already difficult bid by a candidate more associated with the 1990s than 2012. Bachmann’s support is very deep but very narrow. The same goes for libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (Texas). Businessman Herman Cain has no experience in government and failed to make it out of the 2004 Georgia GOP Senate primary.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is campaigning heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire, still has to demonstrate that he can put together a top-tier campaign and catch fire.

That leaves Huntsman, who looks and sounds the part as president but has so many political warts that it is unclear that he will emerge as a serious alternative to Romney and Pawlenty.

If the GOP contest resembles a Final Four basketball bracket, the race is likely to come down to Romney and someone else. The recent decisions by Barbour, Daniels and Huckabee enhance Pawlenty’s prospects to be that someone else — and ultimately the Republican nominee.

So, for now, forget the early polls. They are meaningless. Keep your eye on Pawlenty.