Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, dropped out of the presidential race Sunday morning after finishing a distant third in Saturday’s Iowa GOP straw poll.
Candidates who go all-in but fall well short in Ames typically find it difficult to raise money, and without personal wealth to fall back on, Mr. Pawlenty decided to cut his losses and bow out. In addition, the entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the race Saturday, combined with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s victory in the straw poll, has shifted the focus to their expected battle for the hearts and minds of conservatives.
As things look now, the weekend scrambling of the race highlights three top players: Governor Perry, Congresswoman Bachmann, and Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.
There may be a longer-than-usual slog toward a winner than Republicans are used to. Perry enters the race as a top-tier candidate, second in national polls of GOP voters only to Mr. Romney. Bachmann was already placing third in polls, even before her victory in the Iowa straw poll Saturday, and has now solidified her status as a major contender.
Each of the three has planted a flag in different early-contest states: Bachmann in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, and Perry in South Carolina, where he announced his candidacy. Of the three, it’s easiest to see Romney holding onto his first-place perch in New Hampshire, which he has been cultivating for years, and where his low-key approach on social issues fits the Northeastern sensibility.
Bachmann begins the race to win the first nominating contest – the Iowa caucuses in early 2012 – as the favorite. She leaned heavily on her Iowa roots in her straw poll speech, with a nary a hint that she has lived in Minnesota most of her life. More important, her evangelical Christian faith and tea party activism make her a good fit for Iowa Republicans, where the party is dominated by social conservatives who have embraced the tea party’s low-tax, small-government message.
But Perry has the potential to knock Bachmann off her Iowa perch. He, too, speaks freely of his evangelical Christian beliefs, is popular with some tea partyers, but also has close ties to the national GOP establishment, which Bachmann does not have. He can also trump her on experience: He has been governor of Texas for more than 10 years and has presided over strong job creation. Since entering politics, Bachmann has only been a legislator and, as Pawlenty charged in the GOP debate last Thursday, has a thin record of accomplishment.
“She’s an excellent cheerleader,” says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “Her task is to convince Republicans that she can be a quarterback.”
In addition, says Mr. Goldford, Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll with only 29 percent of the vote, “so there are still doubts about her.”
Perry did not compete at Ames, but still got 718 write-in votes, in part because Perry supporters have been traveling the state for the past six weeks – and were at the straw poll – ginning up interest in him and encouraging write-ins.
Another factor is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who came in a close second at Ames, losing to Bachmann by only 152 votes out of 16,892 cast. Congressman Paul’s longtime libertarian brand of Republicanism has made him a big hit with tea partyers, and he commands a devoted following like no other candidate in the GOP race. But his unorthodox positions on foreign policy and drugs keep him outside the Republican mainstream, and major party strategists tend to believe he’s not nominatable.
Still, Paul’s presence in the race helps to split the tea party vote in the primaries, and while it’s not clear who that hurts more, it could aid Romney, whom tea partyers don’t trust.
One possible scenario is that Perry and Bachmann duke it out, with the winner of that “tea party primary” facing Romney in a final showdown for the nomination. But with Perry having only just announced, it’s too soon to say how he will do, or how Bachmann will do over the long haul. It’s also possible that Perry – as the only candidate in the race who bridges the mainstream GOP with the tea party and social conservative wings of the party – could cut directly into Romney’s lead.
Romney’s game plan is to win the second contest, New Hampshire, then win the fourth contest, the Nevada caucuses. He and the winner or winners of the first and third states, Iowa and South Carolina, would then all converge for a big showdown in the fifth contest, the Florida primary.
But the race for the GOP nomination could well go beyond Florida. New rules adopted by the Republican National Committee require any contests held before April 1 to award convention delegates proportionally, not winner-take-all as in the past. This could make 2012 look a lot more like the drawn-out nomination battle of the Democrats in 2008 rather than the Republicans’ relatively quick finish.