Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty laces up before a hockey scrimmage in… (Charlie Neibergall, AP )
Reporting from Urbandale, Iowa — After a week touring scorching Iowa in his RV, Tim Pawlenty suited up Friday in a "2012" jersey, laced up his black skates and glided onto an ice rink northwest of Des Moines. Before a line of cameras — more than most of his events drew last week — he played pickup hockey with his brother, his Iowa state chairman and some local kids.
The presidential candidate wrestled some opponents — adult ones — for the puck against the boards. He took a few missed shots at the goal — once diving and landing flat on the ice. But he also scored, drawing cheers from the bleachers.
The intended metaphor wasn't lost on anyone who has watched Pawlenty struggle to break above single digits here in Iowa, which will hold the first presidential caucus of 2012. He has similarly used the hockey arena throughout his political career — including during two winning campaigns for governor in Minnesota.
Back then he was trying to burnish his image as a blue-collar guy who grew up near the stockyards in South St. Paul. Now, as he relaunches his presidential campaign three weeks before a crucial test of his viability in the Ames straw poll, he's trying to prove what many Iowa voters don't quite believe: that he's a tough guy who can beat President Obama in 2012.
Traveling hundreds of miles last week through the counties that ring Des Moines and Ames, Pawlenty hammered the theme that he has taken on tough fights and won. In each speech, Pawlenty noted that he had challenged unions, braved a government shutdown and stood firm for conservative principles in Minnesota. He began airing a new Iowa television ad, set in a hockey arena: "You fight, you bleed, you prevail," he narrates.
"The main way we are going to goof this up as Republicans is to nominate the wrong candidate," Pawlenty told an audience in Boone, making a veiled reference to rival Michele Bachmann: "If you serve up to the country a candidate who's not ready to be president, who can't really run the country…. Iowa will do a disservice to the process."
Some voters like Orrie Muench, a 67-year-old corn and soybean farmer from Boone County, came away impressed. "He and his wife, they're upright, moral, ethical people," Muench said. "Everything he said, I can support…. It just flows out of him, so he has to believe it in his heart."
But many other Republican voters, who almost universally praised Pawlenty's sincerity and credentials, questioned whether he was forceful enough — whether he had "the razzamatazz," as one voter put it — to win.
"He has what's necessary, [but] he hasn't shown that to me, that he's able to stick up for himself and the party and his beliefs," said Amy Hudson, who recently stopped by a deli in West Des Moines to meet Bachmann. "I just don't think he's portraying himself as a leader."
"When you become the president you have to put up with a whole lot of crap, and whole lot of egos and strong personalities out there, to be able to persuade them to come over and see it your way," said her husband, Scott Hudson.
For many voters here, Minnesota Rep. Bachmann is Pawlenty's stiffest competition.
After watching her campaign bus pull away from a Norwalk house party, Craig Milligan volunteered to chair her efforts in neighboring counties.
"Big things come in little packages. She's got a powerful amount of energy," said Milligan, a hay farmer and former co-chairman of Warren County GOP Central Committee. Milligan, 52, said he admired Pawlenty but described him as "dry meat": "He's got some great ideas, but nothing's cooking."
Those kinds of impressions explain why the Ames straw poll, a measure of candidate organizing strength, looms so large for Pawlenty. Though he has visited Iowa more than almost any other candidate and hails from a neighboring state, Pawlenty drew the support of 6% of likely Republican caucus-goers in a recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll — sixth place among eight candidates. A strong finish at the straw poll could reassure donors and activists that Pawlenty has a future. A poor one could make it far more difficult for his campaign to survive until the winter caucuses.
Pawlenty believes time is on his side. During an interview in Fort Dodge, he noted that he planned to spend almost every day in Iowa before the Aug. 13 straw poll. Though his ground organization for the Ames contest is unrivaled in scope, he also sought to lower expectations by insisting that his goal was to show "significant progress" rather than to win.
For now, Pawlenty has sharpened his argument about his electability — in part based on his record of getting elected and reelected, though narrowly, in a swing state. Speaking to an audience of about 100 people on a carpeted indoor basketball court in West Des Moines on Wednesday night, Pawlenty said while other Republican candidates may promise to cut spending and taxes, "there's a big difference between flapping your jaw and talking about it, and doing it."