Pawlenty campaign in trouble after poor finish in crucial Iowa straw poll

AMES, Iowa – Tim Pawlenty's third-place showing in the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday raises new questions about the core health of his campaign. 

The former Minnesota governor has failed to raise his poll numbers outside the single digits, and had poured most of his remaining resources into the straw poll, where he hoped a victory would infuse his campaign with new momentum.

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"We made progress in moving from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses, but we have a lot more work to do," Pawlenty said in a statement. "This is a long process to restore America -- we are just beginning and I'm looking forward to a great campaign."

Pawlenty had set expectations to finish somewhere in the top-tier. He said repeatedly that a first-place finish wasn't essential. But even Pawlenty acknowledged Friday that a disappointing finish would force him to "reassess" his campaign, which has set itself up in the more traditional structure, with operations in many of the early-voting states. 

Republican adviser Alex Castellanos said that Pawlenty's campaign team would have to do some soul searching after the third place finish.

"Usually you end up going through the stages of death. First there’s denial, ‘Maybe we can find a way to extend this, slow and steady and grind it out. After all, McCain did that.’ Then you go through the anger, you start seeing people on the campaign pointing fingers, throwing people under the bus. Then step three, you have be realistic, and ask if you have the money to stay in the race," Castellanos said.

"That’s what’s going to be happening in Pawlenty campaign in the next 24 hours."

It’s unclear how much longer Pawlenty’s campaign can last. His fundraising ability, already weak in comparison to other candidates, will likely take another blow from this.

Before the vote was in, John Robinson, a major Pawlenty donor who was one of the three people who legally incorporated Pawlenty’s campaign, said that a poor finish would hurt fundraising.

“The last several weeks [donors] have been keeping their powder dry,” Robinson said. “As much of a circus as this is, if you don’t place very well it’ll impact the next several months.”

On top of money issues, if Pawlenty can’t gain traction in a state that borders his after spending more than 45 days there over the past year, it’s unclear he can gain traction anywhere.

Matthew Dowd, a former senior campaign advisor to President George W. Bush, predicted a fast exit for Pawlenty. “My guess is [an end to Pawlenty's campaign] goes even quicker than I would have thought before,” said Dowd after the results came in. “I would have thought he would be given three or four weeks but I think he's got to do it even quicker than that.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a close ally of Bachmann’s, was in town for the Straw Poll as well as a “Value Voters” bus tour around the state. Shortly before the results were released, Gohmert said that a poor finish would be tough for Pawlenty personally as well as professionally.

“It's got to be tough for Governor Pawlenty to think that somebody he looked at as a lowly legislator may actually do better than him in an executive race,” said Gohmert.