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The road to the presidential nomination used to run through the Iowa caucuses.
But that might not be the case anymore, which makes former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) plan to go all in in the Hawkeye State a bigger gamble than in previous cycles.
Pawlenty will formally announce his presidential campaign today in Iowa, kicking off what is expected to be a traditional strategy for winning the nomination by putting big resources into the first-in-the-nation caucus state. The former governor boasts the largest Iowa campaign of any presidential hopeful so far — an operation that many have compared to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) extensive efforts in 2008.
“He’s putting together quite an organization. He’s got the same headquarters that I had for my campaign,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) said in a telephone interview Friday. “He’s also very humble, hardworking, down to earth. That sells well in Iowa. He’s spending the time, and he’s putting together a pretty impressive group of people for his campaign.”
But Pawlenty’s biggest Iowa boost came early Sunday morning, when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) announced he would not run for the White House. As governors of Midwestern states, Daniels and Pawlenty would likely have been competing for similar voters in the Iowa caucuses if the Indiana Republican jumped into the race.
But now that Daniels has declined to run, the GOP presidential field is more open than ever, especially in the Hawkeye State, leaving many to wonder what role Iowa will play in picking the nominee in 2012.
After former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, announced last week that he would not run again next year, there were rumblings about whether Iowa still reigns supreme in presidential politics. After all, in 2008, eventual Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) put only minimal resources in Iowa and placed fourth in the caucuses.
Romney, who placed second in the 2008 Iowa caucuses and whom national polls show to be the early frontrunner in the 2012 race, appears to be tentative about playing in Iowa this cycle, focusing his resources instead on New Hampshire.
“It was a very, very disappointing second-place finish for him in caucus night,” said Chuck Laudner, former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party during the 2008 caucuses. “He went all in here and it didn’t work out for him. I just don’t see him repeating that.”
But Branstad said he doesn’t think Romney will write the caucuses off completely, and he vehemently defended the state’s importance in the presidential nominating process.
“I think he will compete here, and I think it would be a mistake for any candidate not to,” Branstad said. “I think if you don’t come in in the top three in Iowa, it really hurts you in the other states.”
Officials also say that as of this week, all but one of the top-tier GOP hopefuls have indicated they plan to participate in the Ames Straw Poll.
Iowa Republican Party officials met Thursday with representatives from campaigns planning to participate in the straw poll. According to a well-placed source, two representatives from each of the following camps were present: Pawlenty, Romney, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), businessman Herman Cain and Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Ron Paul (Texas).
No one from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s team was present at the meeting — an indication that the former ambassador to China might skip over the caucus state.
That’s not a good idea, Branstad said.
“If he wants to run for president, he should. He’s not really well-known here,” he said. “Those people who have ignored Iowa ... I’m thinking of Rudy Giuliani last time. ... He thought he could wait until Florida, and by that time it was over.”
But Branstad pointed out that he’s seen the most activity from Pawlenty and Santorum — although if Bachmann officially announces her candidacy, he expects her to visit often.
That could be a problem for Pawlenty, who is seeking to follow in Huckabee’s footsteps as a caucus winner. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, was victorious in the Iowa caucuses in part because he appealed to conservative Christian voters.
“Huckabee had a real connection,” said Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman. “There’s nothing in Pawlenty’s background, record or speeches that would alienate him from the evangelicals. But, again, it remains to be seen whether he would connect.”
Pawlenty’s campaign is fairly traditional for the Iowa caucuses, according to several local Republicans, who say that he has hired several field staffers dispersed throughout the state and brought on many paid consultants. Three days before Pawlenty’s planned announcement, his campaign sent out a list of four new senior advisers it had brought on board — on top of the several staffers it already has in the state.
In fact, Pawlenty’s team is similar to the formal operation that both Romney and McCain had in place at this point in the 2008 cycle — before the Arizona Senator’s campaign bottomed out and he was forced to take the majority of his staff off the payroll.
“The benefit Pawlenty has is that he can come in and fill the Romney void. The fact that he’s going big, I think it’s a smart move,” Laudner said. “From what I can see, they’re the only ones really going at it. This is the perfect time to do it after Huckabee not getting in and the whole Trump fiasco. ... Now is the time to strike.”
And while Pawlenty’s plan might be the most traditional strategic path to the nomination, it has certainly proved to be successful in the past. President Barack Obama implemented a similar strategy in 2008, focusing heavily on the Iowa caucuses — a win that solidified his position as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief opponent for the nomination.
This article updates the print version to include information about Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ decision not to run for president in 2012.