Recently, I hosted a focus group of undecided voters very likely to take part in the Iowa Straw Poll in August. A cringe-inducing moment came when we asked group members to give their instant reactions to each of the GOP candidates. When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's name came up, some of things this group of conservatives said included:
Whether you're running for president of the United States or just seeking a date for the prom, none of those is something any would-be alpha male ever wants to hear. And they're the sorts of objections that are very difficult to overcome. I'm not saying Mr. Pawlenty is already done in Iowa, but I am saying he needs a game-changer - in a hurry.
Passive-aggressive is no way to run for president, especially in a year when conservatives are looking for a champion to take the fight to President Obama and the liberal media. Mr. Pawlenty's Romneycare face-palm at the New Hampshire debate in June resonated more with Iowa caucus voters than any of his big-name endorsements and staff hires, because it reinforced their first impression of him as a guy with a decent heart but not much backbone.
You can't write a book called "Courage to Stand" and then not really take one. The only bold colors Mr. Pawlenty has offered on the campaign trail involved ethanol, which is an issue that was already losing clout in Iowa anyway. Ethanol proponents haven't even been able to get the Iowa legislature to carry out their agenda, let alone the powers-that-be in Washington. Mr. Pawlenty's "courage to stand" against ethanol didn't take much courage.
This narrative of Mr. Pawlenty as lacking the fortitude it takes to defeat, repeal and nullify the Obama agenda also becomes more embedded in the collective consciousness of Iowa's influential Christian conservative population now that he has refused to sign the Family Leader's controversial marriage pledge.
Iowa conservatives couldn't care less what Whoopi Goldberg and Stephen Colbert think of the pledge. If anything, the fact that leftists such as Miss Goldberg and Mr. Colbert are mocking it impresses them all the more and eliminates Mr. Pawlenty from their consideration when he sides with them over one of their own, no matter how politely he does it.
Instead, they're wondering why fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann was the first to sign the pledge from the influential conservative group and Mr. Pawlenty has not. This is especially so since Mr. Pawlenty was the first speaker at the group's presidential lecture series, and one of Mr. Pawlenty's Iowa co-chairs also co-chaired the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Bob Vander Plaats, the CEO of the Family Leader.
Conservatives aren't looking for a candidate who won't get his hands dirty because the left might make fun of him; they're looking for someone to get his hands dirty defeating the left.
There is a perception of Mr. Pawlenty that he is the consultants' candidate in a year when Republican primary voters are looking for convictions. By his own actions, or more specifically, inactions, Mr. Pawlenty is perpetuating this perception.
Though his single-digit support in surveys with the Iowa Straw Poll less than a month away is a grim omen of his prospects, all is not lost. The field is fluid, and Mr. Pawlenty can still reinvent himself if he does these three things:
c Go with your gut. Shed the consultants, especially the Iowa legislators on your caucus campaign. Most of those Iowa legislators spent the past session surrendering to the Democrats and the state's RINO governor and, frankly, Mr. Pawlenty's Iowa campaign seems more in their lukewarm image than the sort of happy warrior conservatives are looking for. Take these last four weeks before the Straw Poll and either go big and bold or go home.
c Cast a vision. Mr. Pawlenty's people keep telling people like me that they're supporting him because he can win the general election. That's the worst reason to support someone in a primary, especially in this environment. That's also the excuse people gave for supporting moderate John McCain in 2008, and last I checked, despite being all mavericky, he lost. Besides, how can you make the case you'll win the general election when you've exhausted more resources than any other Republican primary candidate and you're still in single digits? Mr. Pawlenty's meta-theme lacks vision, which is ironic because Mrs. Bachmann's doesn't, and usually that's something governors articulate better in campaigns than legislators.
c There's something about Mary. After sitting in a private roundtable with Tim and Mary Pawlenty this year, I came away wondering whether the wrong Pawlenty was running for president. His wife, Mary, is impressive, sincere and the best advocate her husband has. He would be wise to use her as a character witness frequently.
The clock is ticking on Tim Pawlenty. Michele Bachmann is surging, Ron Paul's support is enough for him to conceivably win the Straw Poll, Rick Perry's people are already lining up an Iowa organization and Sarah Palin's Iowa grass-roots coordinator told me recently that it's "100 percent" she's going to run.
Mr. Pawlenty has to decide whether he wants to be the Republican standard-bearer or the next Lamar Alexander or Sam Brownback. And he has to decide quickly.
Steve Deace hosted a talk show on Iowa's WHO-AM, where Ronald Reagan was sports director.
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