Pressure on Pawlenty before CPAC speech (and poll)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Less than 24 hours from now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty will step on stage at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with a chance to ensconce himself as a presidential favorite in the minds of the Republican activists in the room looking for a standard-bearer to support.

Will he ignite the stage like Sarah Palin did at the Republican National Convention last summer and vault his way into frontrunner status for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination? Or will he stumble like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did a year ago when giving the Republican response to President Obama’s first speech to a joint session of Congress.

It’s obvious, though, that Pawlenty has been laying the groundwork for this moment.

An in-depth interview with Esquire came out last week Friday, in which the reporter described him as a man who has “led a liberal state with success, is unspoiled by scandal or prior defeat, and has a sunny disposition.” Pawlenty followed that with a Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post laying out his five-point plan for health care reform. Then yesterday, he wrote a letter to President Obama asking that governors (like himself) be invited to the upcoming White House bipartisan health care summit.

And the pressure is on.

The other big question looming over the weekend is how Pawlenty will fare in the annual CPAC straw poll. Conventional wisdom is that he won’t win — instead that he’s competing for third place behind front-runners Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Exhibit A: A Gallup poll released one week ago where Pawlenty polled at just 1 percent.

But perhaps Pawlenty will do better than people think. Exhibit B: An Esquire poll of 75 top GOP leaders, in which he came second to Romney with 13 percent of the vote, one percentage point better than Sarah Palin.

Of course, there’s one giant caveat to all this CPAC hype. John McCain skipped the conference in 2007. In 2008, he showed up and was lustily booed, despite conference organizers telling attendees in advance not to do that.

Yet there McCain stood in St. Paul some months later, the Republican nominee for president.

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