Pawlenty’s troubles

In this week alone, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has pulled to the front of the GOP presidential field and is now not only favored to win the Ames Straw Poll in August and the caucuses in January, but is gaining in New Hampshire as well. Sarah Palin continued flirting by flying into Iowa for a movie about — who else? — herself, and was met with the usual adoring throngs in addition to the media scrum scraping for hints she might still decide on an actual presidential campaign, instead of the virtual one she has patented on a bus tour, book tours and Twitter. 

Meanwhile, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) gave a major foreign-policy address on Tuesday, blasting President Obama for being “timid, slow and too often without a clear understanding of our interests” while warning isolationist Republicans, “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.” 

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Before another Minnesotan with a much slimmer record took his place behind front-runner Mitt Romney, Pawlenty was a heavy hitter establishment pick, vying to be the anti-Romney. Suddenly Bachmann, a third-term congresswoman, owns that space. He started running more than a year ago, saying all the right things in all the right places to all of the right wing. Forget Romney, Palin or the others with their wobbly two- or one-half-legged stools. Pawlenty focused intently on the three kinds of GOP voters critical to the primary coalition, from defense hawks to evangelicals to fiscal conservatives. Yet after working Iowa harder than any other GOP candidate for months now, Pawlenty registered at a dreadful 6 percent in a Des Moines Register poll this past weekend while Bachmann earned nearly four times as much support (22 percent). Other second-tier candidates including Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Herman Cain fared better as well. Most painful was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) beating Pawlenty with 7 percent, considering that Gingrich’s decimated campaign is nothing more than an amusement.

Polls aren’t the only problem. Pawlenty’s key staff are reportedly working for free or next to nothing as the campaign prepares for quarterly fundraising reports that will likely put Romney ahead in the cash chase, with Bachmann just behind him. Pawlenty’s numbers, some expect, could send his backers into a panic.

The two-term governor’s supporters haven’t known quite what to make of his defining moment at the June 13 debate in New Hampshire when he changed his mind about executing an attack on Romney he had set up the day before. Declining to blame Romney for “ObamneyCare,” after coining the phrase himself to equate Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare reform law with the president’s, was bad enough. But Pawlenty continues to publicly lament his mistake, now charging that Romney was a “co-conspirator” in ObamaCare. Seemingly unaware of how each new battle cry further weakens him, Pawlenty even coined a new name for the merged healthcare reform laws. Now sounding more like a seventh-grader running for the student body than a presidential candidate, Pawlenty declared last week: “Rest assured, I won’t miss another chance to attack RomneyCare.”

It truly matters little whether Pawlenty’s troubles amounted to disagreements among staff and advisers or resulted from his own internal conflicts. He has exposed his naiveté and, worse, his lack of fire for the fight. For any Republican donors or voters searching still for the best choice to beat Romney, Pawlenty has earned a huge question mark. 

Many Republicans now wonder if Pawlenty is, as he described Obama, “timid, slow and too often without a clear understanding of our interests.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.