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While the exits of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Daniels theoretically create more opportunities for Romney in Iowa, they are even more important for Pawlenty, who starts off less well-known and could benefit from conservatives looking for a serious alternative to Romney. This is particularly true if Romney’s ceiling in the caucuses is around 25 percent or 30 percent, as many believe.
With fewer credible candidates in the race, the GOP vote is likely to be less fractured, making it more difficult for Romney to finish first in the caucuses because of his ceiling.
Doesn’t the smaller field also make the Iowa caucuses a “must win” for Pawlenty? I’m not sure.
If Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) runs for the GOP nomination, as expected, she could well win the caucuses, which have tended to be dominated by conservative evangelicals. That’s a group that Pawlenty can compete for — he was raised as a Catholic but is now an evangelical — but with whom Bachmann should have an advantage.
Even if the Iowa-born Bachmann were to win the caucuses, most serious journalists and analysts might discount her showing as an aberration rather than an indication that she can be nominated. Given that, even a strong second-place finish by Pawlenty in Iowa might give him some momentum going into the Granite State.
Pawlenty also may benefit in fundraising from recent GOP decisions not to run.
Many key GOP campaign fundraisers and contributors have remained on the sidelines, waiting for decisions first by Barbour and Daniels. Since those backers didn’t gravitate to Romney initially, they must be looking for someone else, and Pawlenty would now seem to be the most credible alternative to the Massachusetts Republican.
Romney, of course, remains the early frontrunner in the GOP race, but most of the other hopefuls start far behind Romney and Pawlenty as potential nominees.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) disastrous campaign launch seriously damages an already difficult bid by a candidate more associated with the 1990s than 2012. Bachmann’s support is very deep but very narrow. The same goes for libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (Texas). Businessman Herman Cain has no experience in government and failed to make it out of the 2004 Georgia GOP Senate primary.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who is campaigning heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire, still has to demonstrate that he can put together a top-tier campaign and catch fire.
That leaves Huntsman, who looks and sounds the part as president but has so many political warts that it is unclear that he will emerge as a serious alternative to Romney and Pawlenty.
If the GOP contest resembles a Final Four basketball bracket, the race is likely to come down to Romney and someone else. The recent decisions by Barbour, Daniels and Huckabee enhance Pawlenty’s prospects to be that someone else — and ultimately the Republican nominee.
So, for now, forget the early polls. They are meaningless. Keep your eye on Pawlenty.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.