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Editorial

What to make of Iowa

It's easy to poke fun at its straw poll, but you can't say it's not important. Just ask former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who had to end his campaign for president after he finished poorly.

August 16, 2011

Say what you will about the Iowa straw poll — and we could say plenty, including that it's the political equivalent of Groundhog Day, that its results don't predict outcomes in the state's winter caucus because its participants are an unrepresentative sample of voters, and that it's a cynical way for Iowa's Republican Party to raise money — but you can't say it's insignificant. Just ask Tim Pawlenty.

The former governor of Minnesota dropped out of the GOP nomination race Sunday after a disappointing third-place finish in Ames, behind Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. It was probably the right decision for Pawlenty, given that his fading campaign had pinned its hopes on a strong showing; after depleting his small campaign chest in Iowa, Pawlenty needed to finish well there to give donors a reason to give more. Saturday's poll may not say much about which GOP hopeful will eventually come out on top (held since 1979, the poll has a history of picking losers such as Pat Robertson in 1987 and Mitt Romney in 2007), but it does indicate something about the kind of candidate social conservatives will be backing.

Pawlenty's shellacking by Bachmann, who won 28.6% of the votes to his 13.6%, came despite Pawlenty's fervent courting of the religious voters who make up the conservative core of Iowa Republicans. Both Minnesota politicians are outspoken Christian activists, condemning abortion and same-sex marriage while talking up issues that appeal to evangelicals such as home-schooling and support for Israel. The main difference between the two, and the one that Pawlenty frequently emphasized, was that as a state governor from 2003 to 2011, he was the candidate with experience and a record of accomplishment. "She said she's got a titanium spine," Pawlenty said of Bachmann during a televised debate last week. "It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results."

Poll participants didn't care — any more than voters nationwide cared in 2008, when they elected a relatively inexperienced but eloquent senator from Illinois as president. What Bachmann has, and Pawlenty lacks, is charisma.

While Romney seems to have the fiscal conservative vote mostly sewn up, the contest for the hearts and votes of social conservatives, which is particularly important in early caucus states, now appears to be a tossup between Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a recent entrant with as much born-again credibility as Bachmann, plenty of charisma and years of executive experience to boot. The GOP caucuses and primaries aren't expected to start until February, but the shaping of the field is well underway.

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