Pawlenty supporters can’t help but second-guess his decision to drop out of presidential race

Tim Pawlenty launched his presidential campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 23.  Less than three months later, he withdrew from the GOP race.
REUTERS/John Gress
Tim Pawlenty launched his presidential campaign in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 23. Less than three months later, he withdrew from the GOP race.

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.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 12/13/2011 - 10:28 am.

    Even if Pawlenty would be a dream candidate for conservatives right now, he’d never have been able to sell it. The GOP nomination is a rich man’s contest where success is more or less determined by the amount of money you have and T-Paw’s net worth just wasn’t up to the challenge.

  2. Submitted by Karl Struck on 12/13/2011 - 10:57 am.

    I think we can play the what if game quite a bit in this race. However, I always kind of lumped Pawlenty and Huntsman in the same category. How are we to know if Pawlenty would face the same issues that the Huntsman campaign is also facing.

  3. Submitted by Reid Parkinson on 12/13/2011 - 11:07 am.

    Pawlenty did leave the race too soon. But he lacks the charisma of Rick Santorum, much less the other guys. I don’t think it would have worked out for him.

  4. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 12/13/2011 - 11:08 am.

    Just another example of Pawlenty’s poor analytical ability and decision-making. We are all better off with him out of the race. The country cannot afford to have him “lead”, he is bereft of ideas or any governing ideology save “no tax increases”, as his 8 years in Minnesota proved.

  5. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 12/13/2011 - 11:22 am.

    The entire momentum for the “Pawlenty for President” chatter began because in 2006 he was one of the few Republicans who won re-election (narrowly) in a big Democratic year.

    His entire campaign was anchored to that that single event. Not surprisingly, even Republicans were underwhelmed. No doubt that if he were still in the race, he would still be battling Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum for last place.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/13/2011 - 11:34 am.

    Neither Gingrich nor Herman Cain had any money. This race has been about ideas and selling those ideas in the debates. Tim succeeded in neither.

  7. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 12/13/2011 - 11:37 am.

    I write as a former Pawlenty supporter. He had no chance. Horrible track record in MN. Sure, he didn’t raise taxes, but he offered zero on reform. He flip-flopped on climate change. He was and is the consummate finger in the wind politician. You could literally watch him calculating what would be the most politically expedient answer in debates. The second Pawlenty decided to run for president is the second he lost his soul. There was no there, there, anymore, and people could and did smell that a mile away.

  8. Submitted by Norman Larson on 12/13/2011 - 12:02 pm.

    It was interesting to read that Pawlenty’s beverage of choice is “light beer”. That fits him perfectly: light. For someone who is supposed to be so politcally astute, Pawlenty’s decisions leave one in wonderment.

  9. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    His supporters need to realize, for once and for all, that Tim Pawlenty was not a good candidate. Staying in the race would have only delayed the inevitable. He may have gained some traction as the flavor-of-the-week, but it would have done him no good. He isn’t crazy enough to appeal to the tea partiers, and he is too conservative to appeal to the more moderate element in the GOP. Sure, he can clean up nicely and appeal to the out-of-town pundits, but in the end, he has nothing to offer.

    Tim Pawlenty was out of his depth as Governor. Why anyone thought he would be a credible candidate for President is beyond me.

  10. Submitted by Lora Jones on 12/13/2011 - 12:38 pm.

    #7 “there was no there there” Alas, many of us knew there wasn’t any there, there long before he began his ill-fated presidential run. It’s hard to decide whether he or our boy Normie Coleman have the edge when it comes to defining the phrase “Empty Suit.”

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/13/2011 - 12:57 pm.

    “Why anyone thought he would be a credible candidate for President is beyond me.”

    Because they look at who sits in the White House now and figure if he could do it, anyone can.

  12. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2011 - 02:01 pm.

    #11 That has to be the clumsiest attempt at snark I’ve seen in a long time. The Pawlenty for President chatter began in 2006, if not before. In case you forgot, that was two years before Obama was elected President.

    Or–did you mean they saw George W. Bush in the White House and decided that any fool could be elected? That would make sense.

  13. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 12/13/2011 - 02:29 pm.

    The first sentence sums it all up. Sure, every day there was a different GOP’er in 1st place. The problem was, regardless of which day you picked, none of them were ever named T-Paw.

  14. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 12/13/2011 - 05:29 pm.

    Thanks for doing this story. I had forgot about Pawlenty and with good reason. Madeline got it right. There never was anything there and people can see naked unprincipled meaningless ambition a mile off-just as with Romney. Tpaw missed the opportunity to be a moderate R and help the state and his party didn’t help him be one either.

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 12/13/2011 - 06:06 pm.

    The fundraisers probably figured they didn’t need another Romney in the mix.

  16. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 12/13/2011 - 09:37 pm.

    This GOP/Tea-Party Presidential primary campaign has been a political meat and philosophy grinder that likes of which has possibly been seen in modern times. As much as we can/could speculate on Tim Pawlenty’s ‘what if’ possibilities and/or campaign his early withdrawal from this campaigning was a politically fortunate move. Think about it!

    Tim Pawlenty could not survive the rabidness and political inaneness that this campaign has brought forth. His not having having a strong campaign coffer or wide spread support from the GOP moneybags and brokers also added to his detriments. Besides Pawlenty’s ‘nice guy’ political image coupled with his gubernatorial MN political track record would have made him fodder for the ensuing political meat grinder this campaign is noted for.

    Let us not also forget that Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann would have made Pawlenty a political target if he started to infringe on her political core GOP/Tea-Party base. Pawlenty would have no choice but to politically ‘gun’ her down and take her out of the race thus causing another chapter to this campaign’s “As the GOP/Tea-Party Politics Churns” soap opera. Then he too would have been fair game for the inane GOP candidate shooting matches.

    Forget the ‘what ifs’, Pawlenty did the correct move by withdrawing and maintaining his dignity and ‘nice guy’ GOP stature. At least, he’ll be around for another political day whether we agree with him or not. He doesn’t deserve to get chewed up in this divisive GOP/Tea-Party primary debacle. If the GOP wants him then the GOP will call him.

  17. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/13/2011 - 10:21 pm.

    Pawlenty would have to go counter to his CONSERVATIVE roots and run up a deficit to stay in the game as supporters were dropping off. There was reason he was vote the most un-influential person in the world. He was good at kicking the can down the road but not selling the public on what he wanted to do. He was a my way or the highway politician and that didn’t sit well with the public. He made the right move by getting out of the campaign, now its time to be obscure.

Leave a Reply