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Tim Pawlenty’s Michele Bachmann Problem

In a Republican presidential race that could include the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Mississippi Gov. (and former Republican National Committee Chairman) Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty’s most troublesome potential opponent could well be a fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Pawlenty, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, got a break recently when Sen. John Thune (S.D.) announced he wouldn’t run for the 2012 GOP nomination.

Though the two men have different political backgrounds — Pawlenty has been in state government while Thune’s recent service has been in Washington, D.C. — the two 50-year-old Midwest Republicans would have been “competing for the same space,” according to one Republican consultant.

But Bachmann, a three-term Congresswoman whose support on the political right and among social conservatives rivals former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s, remains a potential problem for Pawlenty.

Although the two Minnesota Republicans don’t necessarily appeal to the same people, Bachmann’s presence in the Republican contest would undoubtedly draw some Minnesota money and support that would otherwise go to Pawlenty, even if only because he was the “local” guy in the race.

After all, Bachmann represents the most Republican district in the Gopher State. President George W. Bush won her district comfortably with 57 percent in 2004, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried it with 53 percent in 2008.

Many of the Republicans mentioned seriously as potential White House hopefuls start with a very narrow road to the nomination, but the route may be the narrowest for Pawlenty.

He starts a presidential race as the serious contender with the least national political buzz and uncertain fundraising ability, and unless that changes dramatically, he is likely to need a strong showing in neighboring Iowa to jump-start his bid for the GOP nomination.

If Pawlenty can’t get a bump out of Iowa, it’s hard to see him doing better in the three early state contests that will follow: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Pawlenty almost surely needs to win either Iowa or New Hampshire to become his party’s nominee.

It isn’t by chance that Pawlenty’s initial team of campaign operatives includes two Iowa natives, Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor. Nelson was national political director of Bush’s 2004 campaign, while Taylor served as White House political director after Karl Rove.

Bachmann’s effect in Iowa would obviously depend on the makeup of the field, including whether Romney and former Arkansas Gov. and television celebrity Mike Huckabee make major efforts to win the caucuses.

Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008, while Romney finished second.

Bachmann was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in the state until her family moved to Minnesota, giving her a potentially important hook with caucus attendees if she runs.

Moreover, given that six out of 10 Iowa GOP caucus attendees identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians in 2008, Bachmann’s reputation for social conservatism would give her a strong credential to campaign for support.

While some GOP sources insist the conservative Congresswoman is trying to hire a field team in Iowa, a Republican ally of Bachmann urged caution, insisting that “she isn’t there yet.”

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