That former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is widely regarded as one of the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination says a great deal about the GOP field.
Pawlenty is an articulate, personable former two-term executive of a swing state, which means that under almost any circumstances he’d be seen as a serious candidate.
But this cycle, Pawlenty is so much more. Now that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has announced that he’ll forgo a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are the only two Republican contenders who have much of a chance of both being nominated and winning the White House.
Pawlenty’s strength in the race isn’t the passion that he generates or the breadth of his existing appeal. It’s the fact that in a race where every contender and potential contender has considerable baggage, Pawlenty starts off with slightly less.
In other words, Pawlenty’s strength in the race for the White House nod is that he isn’t a Mormon, was never nominated for an ambassadorship by President Barack Obama, never pushed a health care plan with an individual mandate, doesn’t have a wife who is opposed to him running and isn’t so conservative that he would be unacceptable to swing voters.
Being broadly acceptable isn’t a bad thing, of course, but basing a presidential campaign scenario on it is a little like kissing your sister — it isn’t exactly satisfying.
Pawlenty’s electoral history in his two gubernatorial campaigns shows the limits of his appeal.
He was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, each time drawing less than 47 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race. While he did win two elections in a swing state that leans Democratic (including in 2006, a terrible year for the GOP), he didn’t draw close to a majority of the votes cast in either one.
The calendar creates an interesting situation for Pawlenty, and recent events have improved his prospects. Clearly, as the former governor of a neighboring state, he must do well in Iowa.
The nascent campaign of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gives every indication of writing off Iowa and of hoping to jump-start his bid in New Hampshire. While Romney’s allies continue to downplay expectations in Iowa, most insiders expect him to play in the caucuses.
The former Massachusetts governor won a quarter of the vote in the 2008 caucuses, and given the lightweight field in 2012, he will have a hard time writing off next year’s contest. If he were to win Iowa, he’d be positioned to wrap up the nomination in New Hampshire, where he finished second to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.