Given the “Who’s in first today?” nature of the race among Republican presidential candidates, old supporters of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty can’t help but ask the question “What if?”
“I can’t tell you how many significant people in the party have asked me over the months, ‘Is there a chance he gets back in the race?’ ” said Vin Weber, an unpaid adviser to Gov. Mitt Romney who previously served as an adviser to Pawlenty.
Weber and Pawlenty are to get together today in Washington, D.C., to have a drink and talk about the race. (“When he has a drink, it’s always a light beer,” Weber said with a laugh.)
Lots of what-might-have-been conversations
There’s virtually no chance that Pawlenty would re-consider a decision he announced only a few hours after finishing a disappointing third in the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll, Weber said. “He’s very committed to Romney.”
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of what-might-have-been conversations among Pawlenty’s close political friends.
The GOP race has unfolded in a way that would have been almost ideal for a Pawlenty candidacy.
No one candidate has been able to rally significant support in the party. Pawlenty could have been that last person standing in a race that has seen Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Romney rise and fall. Most polls now show Newt Gingrich as the current leader of the pack.
A lot has changed since Aug. 13.
Pawlenty had gone all-in to win the Iowa straw poll, which attracted 16,892 participants. Bachmann won, with 28.6 percent of the vote, narrowing beating Ron Paul, who had 27.7 percent. Pawlenty finished third with 13.6 percent.
But perhaps just as telling: Gingrich finished eighth, with 2.3 percent, just behind Romney at 3.4 percent. Neither Gingrich nor Romney put much of an effort into attracting participants to the Ames, Iowa, event. At the same time, Perry, who figured to be a powerful player in the race, was officially announcing his candidacy in South Carolina.
On Fox News the following morning, Pawlenty announced he was ending his campaign. He apparently consulted few people in reaching that decision, which came before he’d even had much time to digest the long-term impact of finishing behind Bachmann and Paul.
“I was surprised and disappointed” by Pawlenty’s decision, said Charlie Weaver, a longtime Pawlenty friend who had been in Ames for the straw poll. “But when I heard that he was out of money, it made some sense. I think it was a very analytical decision.”
Pawlenty’s campaign was $450,000 in the red.
Still, many of his key supporters had hoped he’d stay in the race.
Weber says ‘comeback candidates‘ common
Candidates can, and often do, come back,” said Weber. “[John] McCain proved that, and now Gingrich is proving that.”
From Weber’s perspective, Pawlenty, who ran a costly campaign in Iowa, would have had to scale back, just as McCain did in 2007. That year, McCain finished 10th in the straw poll with 0.7 percent of the vote.
Romney won the straw poll but then lost in the caucuses to Mike Huckabee.
“There was a path forward,” Weber said. “He would have had to scale way back, cut staff down to two or three, carry his own bags. But he’s a Minnesotan. He’s used to that.”
Of course, in mid-August, it was difficult to foresee how volatile this race would be.
“This race has defied everybody’s expectations,” Weber said. “I think it says something about the general unhappiness of Americans at this time. You have Obama’s low ratings … Occupy Wall Street … you had the Tea Party movement … polls showing that most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. I think this race is part of that same thing, an unhappiness.”
Pawlenty would have been the fresh face, Weber said.
Weaver takes it a step farther.
“I’m convinced that he would be leading the field right now,” Weaver said. “He would be the conservative alternative, much more so than Gingrich.”
Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, said he’s not spoken directly with Pawlenty on this “what if” subject.
But Pawlenty did speak at a Business Partnership meeting.
“Basically, he said that if he had one regret, it was not scaling back [in Iowa] when Michele announced she was getting in the race,” Weaver said. “He still would have competed but at a lower level. There was no trace of bitterness when he said that. Just analytic.
That’s what he would have done differently, but now he’s moving on.”
Weaver doesn’t believe there’s any chance Pawlenty would attempt to get back in the race.
“It would be really hard logistically,” he said. “Plus, he’s not that kind of guy. He’s not the kind who would say, ‘I’m supporting Romney’ and then turn around and cut him off at the knees.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.