Reporting from Portsmouth, N.H., and Ames, Iowa — After finishing a distant third place in the crucial Ames Straw Poll, Tim Pawlenty withdrew from the presidential race Sunday, telling supporters and friends that after much prayer with his wife, he did not see a way forward.
Pawlenty, who announced his decision to donors and supporters on a conference call Sunday morning, had centered his campaign on his neighboring state of Iowa, hoping that his credentials as a social and fiscal conservative would give him broad appeal to first-in-the-nation caucus-goers.
But the laid-back, amiable former governor of Minnesota failed to catch on in the polls, even after building a widely admired staff and touring Iowa for weeks in a modest RV with a grueling schedule. Though Pawlenty drew strong crowds at some of his events, voters often left undecided. And the surge for Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from his home state, combined with the formidable entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday proved to be too much to withstand, despite the more than $1 million he had spent organizing for it.
In an interview with ABC News' "This Week," Pawlenty acknowledged that his message about reducing government spending and doing healthcare reform “the right way,” failed to gain traction. Despite pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the Ames Straw Poll, Pawlenty finished third with 2,293 votes – far behind Michele Bachmann’s 4,823. Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished just 152 votes behind the Minnesota congresswoman.
The campaign, Pawlenty told ABC News’ Jake Tapper on Sunday, “needed to get some lift to continue on and to have a pathway forward. That didn't happen.” (see video below)
"I wish it would have been different. But, obviously, the pathway forward for me doesn't really exist. And so we're going to end the campaign,” Pawlenty said on the news program. “If we didn't do well in Ames, we weren't going to have the fuel to keep the car going down the road.”
In the weeks leading up to the straw poll, voters in Iowa frequently said that they liked Pawlenty and admired his fiscally conservative credentials and family values. But voter after voter said they had difficulty envisioning him taking the fight to President Obama next year – particularly when matched with more fiery opponents, including Bachmann.
For weeks, Pawlenty was dogged by questions about his toughness, which he answered by insisting that as a former hockey player he’d been in more fights than any of the other candidates. But many voters said their view of him had been cemented by his performance in one of the first presidential debates when he refused to engage Mitt Romney, a day after attacking the former Massachusetts governor’s state healthcare program as “Obamneycare.”
Chuck Laudner, a GOP activist and former executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, said he was not surprised that Pawlenty’s poor finish in the straw poll forced him out of the race: “This was a big investment. He was all in on Ames and it was just no traction."
Laudner said many voters liked Pawlent's “average Joe” image, but it was clear from the Straw Poll results that voters were looking for a "change" candidate, he said.
“People aren’t looking for the same old, same old. There was nothing in his record that said ‘This guy is gonna reform Washington, D.C.,” Laudner said. “He would be a good Republican, but he wasn't gonna be the kind of guy that we need to completely flip that place around."