Tim Pawlenty enters 2012 race: how he might win

The former Minnesota governor kicked off his presidential campaign Monday in Iowa. But fewer than half of self-described Republicans even know who he is, polls show.

John Gres/Reuters
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announces that he is running for President in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 23.

Tim Pawlenty has a numbers problem. The ex-Minnesota governor is running for the GOP presidential nomination. He officially announced his campaign Monday at a kickoff event in Iowa. Yet fewer than half of self-described Republicans even know who he is.

We’re not sure that embracing the nickname “T-Paw,” as he’s done, will help much, either. “T-Paw” sounds like something you’d call the mascot for a community college basketball team – not a serious White House contender.

Plus, his poll numbers are in the single digits. According to the most recent Gallup survey, he’s the first choice of only about 4 percent of GOP voters.

Clearly, he’s a long shot to win the Republican nod. But there are long long shots and short long shots, notes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, and Mr. Pawlenty may fall into the latter category.

Pawlenty is always where he is supposed to be, doing a touch better than expected in straw polls and cattle calls, notes Mr. Sabato in his “Crystal Ball” blog. His campaign team is solid and his ads high quality.

“No candidate has gone further, faster so far than Pawlenty,” writes Sabato.

So far Pawlenty is casting himself as the serious guy who’ll tell you that what your engine really needs is to be replaced. At his Iowa campaign kickoff on Monday, he said the state’s prized federal subsidies for ethanol should be scaled back, for instance. He said he’ll tell seniors about possible changes to Social Security when he campaigns there on Tuesday.

Hmm. OK – hope he can run faster than an angry retiree. Anyway, what’s Pawlenty’s possible path to victory? Let’s lay it out.

Be patient. When you’re back in the back, you’ve got to just hang in and see what happens to the rest of the field. Pawlenty has been fortunate so far in that many of the contenders for his slot in the race – the alternative to front-running Mitt Romney – have dropped out. Haley Barbour isn’t running. Mitch Daniels isn’t running. Mike Huckabee isn’t running.

Be good in Iowa. You’ll notice that Pawlenty did not announce his candidacy from the steps of some building in his home state. No, he went south to Iowa to do that. His strategy is built on doing well in the Iowa caucuses, which involve a lot of horse trading and accepting your second choice and that kind of thing, as opposed to a straight vote on first choices. He might do well in Iowa – after all, he’s from Minnesota, which is like Iowa with ice fishing.

Be the anti-Mitt. Pawlenty probably hopes to survive the early voting, surprise people a bit, and then end up as the serious alternative to Mitt Romney. At that point, anything might happen. Mr. Romney could stumble. Pawlenty’s background, which is blue collar to Romney’s more privileged upbringing, could prove to be more attractive to primary voters. Or whatever. The point is: If you can make the final two, anything can happen.

According to Gallup, Pawlenty has a pretty good “Positive Intensity” score, which is measured by subtracting the percentage of people who say they don’t like you from the percentage of people who say they do. At 13, his PI is about what Romney’s is.

But the “Pawlenty who?” problem remains.

“Certainly he’s going to have to increase his name recognition between now and next year if he’s going to be a viable candidate,” Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport said in March.

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