Pawlenty benefits from turbulence in Republican presidential field

A successful economic speech, one rival’s campaign implosion and another’s decision to skip an influential Iowa straw poll have given Tim Pawlenty a very good week.

His campaign hopes to keep the momentum going, getting the traction its needs to catapult the relatively unknown former Minnesota governor into a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

The mass staff resignations from Newt Gingrich’s campaign, combined with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s decision to skip Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll, gives Pawlenty an opening on which his campaign could capitalize.

"The field has changed a lot over the last few months, but our focus is on winning votes one at a time and building the best team on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Alex Conant, Pawlenty’s spokesman.

Pawlenty's brand doesn't carry the star power of Romney or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), among others. This week's ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 45 percent of Republicans had no opinion about Pawlenty, reflecting the fact that his name identification numbers remain relatively low.

He's the nominee of choice for just 4 percent of Republicans, according to the same poll, and President Obama would beat him 51-40 percent. 

Pawlenty’s next big test could come Monday, when he'll participate in CNN's primary debate in New Hampshire. Pawlenty joined a previous forum in South Carolina, but Monday’s event appears to be the first major debate of the cycle, with more top-tier candidates scheduled to be there. 

There remain, however, a number of variables that could befuddle Pawlenty's Oval Office ambitions.

While he’s well-positioned in Iowa, if Palin, Rep. Michele BachmannMichele BachmannThe right-wing wants a revolution, and we had better pay attention Bachmann: Trump, GOP feud isn't a 'civil war' Trump says 2016 is the GOP's last chance to win MORE (R-Minn.) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) enter the race, they could impede Pawlenty's path to victory in the caucuses. 

But with Romney out and former Speaker Gingrich a potential non-factor, Pawlenty appears best-positioned, at this point, to make a play for the August Ames Straw Poll, another potentially catalyzing moment for his campaign.

The former Minnesota governor hasn't staked his entire campaign in Iowa, but he's made no secret about its central role in his electoral map, having formally launched his campaign for president there, and having spent time on the ground for well over a year.

The Pawlenty campaign's gameplan has always relied on seizing moments in the race to help build the Minnesotan's image and popularity.

Pawlenty was the most immediate beneficiary of the Gingrich implosion. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who was Gingrich’s campaign co-chairman, jumped to Pawlenty's campaign following the mass resignations of the former Speaker’s staff. 

Conservatives have also been swooning over Pawlenty after his "Better Deal" speech in Obama's backyard, at the University of Chicago, on Tuesday. The plan, which would eliminate a number of deductions while slashing the top individual and corporate tax rates, won crucial praise from the right, whose support Pawlenty will need in the primaries.

"We were confident that it would be well-received and were pleased that it was,” Conant said. "It's clear that the country and the Republican Party is hungry for an optimistic, pro-growth message."

The speech won not one, but two, fawning pieces on The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page.

"Among GOP presidential contenders, Tim Pawlenty is offering the most ambitious reform agenda so far, and his economic address yesterday continued the trend," the Journal's editors wrote on Wednesday.

And Jack Welch, the iconic former General Electric CEO who's spoken positively in the past about Romney, said he's taking a new look at Pawlenty.

"If you asked me that a month ago, I would have said, well, Mitt Romney might be the best guy, et cetera — the most obvious guy. But everything I see Tim Pawlenty say in the last month appeals to me," Welch said on CNN the day after Pawlenty’s speech.

The White House dismissed the plan as another round of tax cuts for the rich, and called Pawlenty's proposals "not the best approach." The Democratic National Committee (DNC) spent even more time circulating unfavorable coverage of the plan.

Team Pawlenty has long believed that introducing their candidate to Republican voters would be their biggest challenge in the campaign.

And they view their successes this week as the culmination of months' worth of effort.

"The governor's been working really hard at building a solid team, and that hard work is definitely starting to pay dividends," Conant said.

In the meantime, Pawlenty's campaign argues it has the infrastructure in place in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to credibly compete for the nomination. The campaign acknowledges it won't best Romney in fundraising, but Team Pawlenty says it's "well on track" to meeting its fundraising goals.

Pawlenty is spending the weekend in New Hampshire and then will pivot to building his campaign coffers. He'll spend the next two weeks traveling the country and focusing on fundraising.