Pawlenty: First In, First Out? So What?

Tim Pawlenty was the first major Republican to enter the 2012 race. He may well be the first to quit. If so, it may take a while to notice.

Tim Pawlenty was the first major Republican to enter the 2012 race. He may well be the first to quit. If so, it may take a while to notice.

Jeff Zeleny, NYT (“Will Republican Race’s First In Be the First Out?“):

Tim Pawlenty was first in line to enter the Republican presidential race. He is now fighting to avoid becoming the earliest major candidate to be shown the door.

No contender for the Republican nomination has followed the conventional playbook more than Mr. Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who began introducing himself two years ago during a prospecting trip to Iowa. Yet his path has been complicated by fresher faces, an unruly nominating contest and a handful of missteps that swallowed his summer momentum.

The voting will not open for at least six months, but Mr. Pawlenty knows that his performance at the Iowa Straw Poll on Aug. 13 — fair or not — will help determine whether his candidacy accelerates or lands in the annals of Republican presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle whose campaigns were extinguished here.


Few candidates make it to the White House without weathering a difficult period — as President Obama could testify. But Mr. Pawlenty has an extra set of challenges: he is building the best ground-level organization of any campaign around, but has struggled to tap into the new grass-roots energy coursing through the Republican Party and finding it difficult to secure early commitments because the field is still developing.

An alternative explanation is that Pawlenty was never really a major candidate to begin with. He was positioned as a major vice presidential contender in the 2008 cycle for, well, no apparent reason. He continues to be touted as a first tier candidate for the 2012 nomination despite never having been above the low single digits in the polls.

Dole and Alexander were major national brands whose candidacies just never caught on. Quayle was, well, a former one-term vice president who was well liked by the base but generally considered a joke. Pawlenty is .  . . some guy few people have ever heard of who is considered a major contender because the press has inexplicably touted him as one.

It’s not at all clear what his claim to fame is supposed to be. He wasn’t a particularly noteworthy governor and left office after two terms with lukewarm approval ratings. Indeed, he was probably best known for a mullet, which has thankfully been retired. He’s not charismatic.  His positions on the issues are boilerplate, indistinguishable from the serious contenders ahead of him. His dropping out of the race would go largely unnoticed.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Still think Pawlenty is really Martin Short pulling a Borat.

  2. lunaticllama says:

    Pawlenty and Huntsman both are either blessed or cursed by having a huge media bubble create their prominence. Getting conservative media tastemakers to like you is not, in of itself, sufficient to win the Republican nomination.

  3. I’m betting on Gingrich to be the first candidate who has filed with the FEC to quit.

  4. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Agreed with No. 3: I think Gingrich will be first out.

    What’s amazing about Pawlenty is that if McCain in 2008 had not pulled a Crazy Ivan with Sarah Palin and instead went the conventional and obvious route and named Pawlenty as Veep the entire landscape of this election cycle would have been different. Pawlenty would be the front runner and presumed nominee. Palin would be an unknown governor out in the hinterland. Romney might not even be in the contest. Bachmann would be an unknown back bencher. So on, so forth. Boggles the mind.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Anderson Yes, Gingrich actually makes more sense as the first drop.

    @Tsar Nicholas II: I’m not sure what would have been gained by tabbing Pawlenty. McCain went with Palin as a Hail Mary because he desperately needed a game changer. My preference would have been to go Full McCain and tab Joe Lieberman. He’d have lost either way but it would have spared us the meteoric rise of Palin.

    I’m not sure that Pawlenty would be the front-runner had he been the nominee, though. Failed VP candidates generally are dead in the water. Palin’s rise came because she seized the spotlight through sheer force of personality and never let go. And we’d still have had the Tea Party, so I’m not sure why Bachmann wouldn’t be precisely where she is now.

  6. My guess is that unless Pawlenty pulls off a win at the Ames Straw Poll, he’s going to find his support and his fundraising drying up. He may stay in the race after that but the idea that he’s would transform into a first-tier candidate will no longer be taken seriously

  7. michael reynolds says:

    I think the mullet may have been the source of his power.

  8. One quibble with the quoted article:

    No contender for the Republican nomination has followed the conventional playbook more than Mr. Pawlenty

    Um, Romney? He has followed the “conventional playbook” to the tee, including one failed run at the nomination to position himself as the alleged heir apparent.

    T-Paw is the typically semi-well known gov, ex-gov or Senator who thinks that they are more popular than they are. We have candidates like that every cycle and they often end up just like Pawlenty.

  9. Scott F. says:

    Gingrich likes to hear himself talk too much to quit before he gets to do a few more debates. He’s running to promote his ideas, not because he thinks he can win. He’ll dip into the Tiffany’s fund if he has to.