- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — The weekend’s straw poll in Ames lived up to its historic role as presidential bouncer, validating Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s front-runner status in Iowa and kicking former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to the curb — reshuffling the Republican race for the White House along the way.

The Pawlenty exit and Bachmann victory sharpened the GOP focus on national front-runner Mitt Romney and the two candidates considered most likely to challenge the former Massachusetts governor for the nomination: Mrs. Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who officially jumped into the race on Saturday.

Although he wasn’t on the ballot as an official candidate, the Texas governor finished with 4 percent as a write-in — good enough for sixth place, and ahead of Mr. Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Mr. Pawlenty, who finished a distant third with 14 percent, pulled the plug on his campaign Sunday.

“We needed to get some lift to continue on and have a pathway forward,” Mr. Pawlenty said on ABCs’ “This Week.” “That didn’t happen, so I’m announcing this morning on your show that I’m going to be ending my campaign for president.”

Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain said he is staying in the race, despite a fifth-place showing.

“I truly believe,” Mr. Cain told CNN’s Candy Crowley, “that I can win the nomination and the presidency.”

Sunday’s fast-moving developments underscored the fluid nature of the GOP race and overshadowed Rep. Ron Paul’s strong second-place showing in the straw poll. The congressman from Texas pulled in 4,671 votes, or 28 percent, just shy of knocking off Mrs. Bachmann’s total of 4,823, or 29 percent, in her own backyard.

Still, it is anybody’s guess as to whether the nearly 17,000 activists who voted in the straw poll speak for the 120,000 or so Iowans who will make the trek to the Republican caucuses in February.

History suggests that the poll may be a good harbinger for the eventual winner of the Iowa caucuses, but not for its ability to predict the next president.

George W. Bush is the only contested candidate to have gone on to win the Republican nomination and the presidency after a victory in the straw poll since its debut in 1979. It’s also hard to tell whether the straw poll, or the caucuses, will have much influence over the outcome in crucial battleground states such as New Hampshire.

The New England state could be a better barometer for how a candidate will perform against President Obama in a general election because independents are allowed to cast votes in the primary.

On Sunday, Mrs. Bachmann brushed aside those concerns, suggesting she has crossover appeal and that a number of Democrats, independents and “apolitical people” supported her in the straw poll.

“Most Democrats are reasonable, fair-minded people, and so I have a message that reaches out to them because they — after all, they want jobs, too, and they want the economy to turn around, too,” she told NBC’s David Gregory on “Meet the Press.”

After skipping the straw poll, Mr. Romney sees his road to victory starting in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, while Mrs. Bachmann and perhaps Mr. Perry see their presidential dreams hinging on the Iowa caucuses, which will kick off the nomination process.

Mr. Perry stole some of Mrs. Bachmann’s thunder by announcing his candidacy the same day as the straw poll and then traveling to Waterloo, Iowa, at the same Black Hawk County GOP’s Annual Lincoln Day Dinner as Mrs. Bachmann on Sunday.

At Sunday evening’s dinner, there was no overt or covert sniping between the two candidates, as each gave the audience their usual applause lines — Mr. Perry denouncing Mr. Obama as eager to apologize for the U.S. and Mrs. Bachmann denouncing judicial activism and praising the tea party. Mrs. Bachmann also gave away an apple pie to the oldest mother in the audience — 100-year-old Mary Canfield.

Mr. Pawlenty, who was the first Republican to announce his candidacy, began his bid for the presidency with high hopes.

However, he struggled to gain traction in national polls after a poor performance in a June debate in New Hampshire.

Mr. Pawlenty invested $1 million in his Iowa campaign with hopes that a strong showing in the straw poll could help generate additional buzz and donors.

“He made a big investment, and he doubled down, as we call it, and it didn’t pay off,” Mr. Cain said.

Mr. Romney, the front-runner in national polls and fundraising — perhaps reaching out to some of Mr. Pawlenty’s supporters — was gracious in noting his rival’s departure from the race.

Tim Pawlenty and his entire team ran an honorable campaign. I admire his accomplishments as a two-term governor with a record of results for his state,” Mr. Romney said. “I consider him a friend, and I know he has a bright future ahead of him as a leader in the Republican Party.”

Mr. Pawlenty’s dreams may have been dealt the final blow in the debate Thursday night in Ames, where it appeared he came out on the losing end of a feisty face-to-face exchange with Mrs. Bachmann, who said his stances on environmental regulations, a health care mandate and bigger government spending “sounds a lot like Barack Obama to me.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2007 straw poll, portended Mr. Pawlenty’s downfall before the final vote was announced.

“Whoever of the two Minnesotans who come out on top, they come out on the shoulders of their teammates, the other one might go out on a gurney,” he said.