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Pawlenty's bid may face defining moment in coming weeks

July 18, 2011|By James Oliphant
(Charlie Neibergall/AP )

With less than a month to go before the Iowa straw poll, it has become make-or-break time for Tim Pawlenty. And he is quickening his pace accordingly.

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who has seen his months-long presidential bid gain little traction with Republican voters, has the most aggressive schedule this week of any GOP contender—and all of it will take place in Iowa, the state that has become his proving ground.

The straw poll, an Iowa tradition that is more of a test of candidate’s viability than a coronation, takes place in Ames on Aug. 13. A debate will be held in Ames two days earlier.

While other candidates will fan out beyond Iowa this week, the man they call T-Paw is scheduled for no fewer than 12 events across the Hawkeye State, mostly in the central region not far from the site of the poll.

He’s facing two formidable pressures: time and money. While Pawlenty has resisted saying that he needs to win the straw poll to establish his bona fides going forward, he has to show Iowans (and donors and the media) that he has at least a decent chance to win next February. Anything less than that and the vultures start locking in.

Pawlenty raised $4.3 million last quarter and has about $1.4 million to spend in advance of Ames. But he must be able to cover his traveling expenses, pay his staff (which ran up a $600,000 tab last quarter), and stay on the air with ads in the hope that a strong showing in the poll can propel him forward.

Time is running out in another way, as well. Each day brings the possibility that either Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Sarah Palin could enter the race, potentially draining conservative support—and money—away from the affable Minnesotan. Either Perry or Palin would immediately become a strong contender to win the Iowa caucuses.

Pawlenty’s plan all along has been to present himself as the experienced conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, but that strategy has been upended by the attention generated in Iowa by Rep. Michele Bachmann’s candidacy.

Pawlenty’s campaign may be counting on voters to move in his direction as Bachmann’s record falls under increasing scrutiny. And unlike Bachmann, who holds a day job in the House of Representatives, Pawlenty can dedicate himself full-time to campaigning.

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