Tim Pawlenty and his top staff are increasingly downplaying the importance of Iowa in interviews, a strange turn given its central importance to his campaign so far.
Pawlenty told reporters that “this week is the first time that I’ve campaigned in earnest in Iowa,” according to the Des Moines Register despite the fact that he’s been pouring huge amounts of time and resources into the state for months.
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Meet the 2012 GOPers: Tim Pawlenty]
Earlier this week, top aide Vin Weber lowered expectations for the campaign by labeling Pawlenty’s rival Minnesotan Michele Bachmann the frontrunner, who has been surging in the polls.
“It’s going to be very hard to beat Michele in Iowa. Period,” Weber told The Hill. “She’s got hometown appeal, she’s got ideological appeal, and, I hate to say it, but she’s got a little sex appeal too.”
The comments drew heavy attention for his use of the phrase “sex appeal” (he later apologized), but far more significant was Weber’s apparent concession that Iowa might be beyond Pawlenty’s reach. Nor were his comments an isolated instance: Pawlenty offered an even more explicit version to the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier in the week.
“I don’t know that we need to win Iowa, but i think we need to do well there,” he said. “There’s going to be other really strong contenders. Michele Bachmann is from Iowa, she’s got a strong social and tea party connection.”
Pawlenty said he could distinguish himself with his appeal outside the state and as the nominee against Barack Obama, adding “there’s a bunch of of people who can do well in Iowa, but they’re not going to win an election.”
This sudden string of rhetoric minimizing Iowa is odd given that Pawlenty’s path to the nomination goes directly through the caucus. The hope has always been that a big win in Iowa would propel him into the next round of primaries with enough momentum to go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney in a state in a two-man race. And everything Pawlenty’s done to this point has reinforced this idea: he’s spent a ton of time in the state, he went up with the first TV ads, and activists on the ground say his staffers have paid more early attention to the grassroots there than anyone else. There really isn’t another plausible route absent some huge unexpected event that knocks out of one of the top-tier players, especially given that Pawlenty is having trouble enough already distinguishing himself from the crowd in terms of fundraising and poll numbers.
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.