Tim Pawlenty’s presidential dreams are on the line in Iowa, where the candidate has struggled to find his footing since launching his campaign. Now, with the Ames Straw Poll only weeks away, the candidate is relaunching with a new message and a major push to regain momentum before it’s too late.
Pawlenty put a reported $1 million into organizing for Ames, a major sum when you consider he raised $4.2 million over the entire last quarter. While Pawlenty’s aides have consistently lowered expectations, saying even finishing above sixth or seventh might be progress, the resources dedicated to the straw poll clearly indicate that the campaign is banking on an impressive showing. Indeed, Pawlenty recently expressed the hope that after a fair Ames Poll showing “you’ll see our campaign make very good progress between kind of back-of-the-pack status to something closer to front-of-the-pack status.” As a tune up, Pawlenty ran away with the much smaller Dallas County “jar poll” at their local fair.
The candidate has retooled with a new message as well, portraying himself as a tough underdog who can’t be counted out. His latest ad, “American Comeback,” features footage from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” US hockey team (Pawlenty often cites his own enthusiasm for the game).
The hockey image also complements Pawlenty’s sometimes awkward efforts to convey a tougher persona. He’s been arguably the most active candidate on offense, repeatedly going after rival Michele Bachmann’s thin legislative record and recently telling Iowans that their credibility as the first-in-the-nation caucus could suffer if they pick a candidate with little chance of winning the presidency. But he also stumbled by suggesting Bachmann’s migraines were a legitimate issue and pointing out presidents need to do their job “all of the time” only to walk back his remarks and dismiss the entire issue as a “sideshow.”
In addition to his broader come-from-behind reboot, Pawlenty’s upped his game in courting religious and socially conservative voters, a group that’s disproportionately active in Iowa’s GOP caucuses and has been a boon to Bachmann thus far. Recently Pawlenty released a video discussing his faith with his wife and told a voter that he counted Jesus among his favorite “political heroes.” He also showcased his 2nd Amendment cred by firing a Glock 9 mm at a range this week and will later attend a rally of gun rights activists.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.