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While the Republican presidential race has only just begun, it’s already clear that two early one-on-one skirmishes will be crucial for the serious contenders.
The first battle, Iowa, is shaping up as a fight between former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Pawlenty has tried to position himself just to Mitt Romney’s right, so as to make himself appealing to conservatives who are uncomfortable with the former Massachusetts governor but still acceptable to “country club” Republicans who are wary of the tea party.
His overall strategy has always been based on a strong showing in the Hawkeye State catapulting him to a position as the conservative alternative to Romney.
But Bachmann’s candidacy upsets that plan because she begins with a clear advantage in Iowa, where evangelicals and social conservatives constitute a majority of caucus attendees.
“Her conservative message in Iowa is pitch perfect, and she has plenty of money,” one Republican strategist said last week. “The only way she’ll lose Iowa is if she screws up.”
It is difficult to see Pawlenty doing well in New Hampshire if he doesn’t get a boost from Iowa, and a weak showing in the first test — anything worse than a very competitive second-place showing to Bachmann in the caucuses — would cripple his effort financially and have observers writing his political obituary.
While some observers are watching to see if Pawlenty’s fundraising troubles and a weak Ames straw poll result force him out of the race even before the end of the year, it’s probably premature to write off the ex-Minnesota governor just yet (though some are doing it).
But Pawlenty’s early problems surely increase the importance of a strong straw poll showing, and his supporters hope the lowered expectations will ultimately fuel talk of greater momentum for him if and when he starts to show movement in Iowa.
If Pawlenty does well in the Ames straw poll and wins the Iowa caucuses, Bachmann’s candidacy would be over. Simply put: If she can’t win Iowa, she can’t win anywhere.
GOP strategists argue privately that Romney will have to decide, though not immediately, whether to ramp up his Iowa effort shortly before the caucuses in an effort to finish in the top two while publicly downplaying expectations and insisting that he isn’t making a major effort in the caucuses.
Of course, finishing second to Bachmann in the Iowa caucuses would suit the Romney team just fine, as that result would likely force Pawlenty from the contest, eliminating a potentially serious alternative if and when the GOP race comes down to a two-person battle between Romney and an alternative.