DENISON, Iowa—Less than three days before the straw poll that could make or break his presidential campaign, Tim Pawlenty struggled to fill a room.
Only about two dozen people showed up on Wednesday to hear him speak at Cronk’s, a well-known coffee shop in this western Iowa town, leaving plenty of untouched cookies and lemonade. His long-shot rival, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, drew a spillover crowd there two days ago.
Yet if anyone has paid his dues, it is Pawlenty. He’s criss-crossed Iowa for months and plowed about $1 million into the state that hosts the nation’s first nominating contest. “The fact that he has put in the shoe-leather should pay off,” said Gwen Ecklund, the chair of the Crawford County GOP. The polls show it hasn’t. Pawlenty said earlier this week on Fox News Sunday that he expected his campaign to move “closer to the front of the pack” after Saturday's straw poll.
Still, Pawlenty is plugging away, giving largely the same stump speech he’s been giving since he began his campaign. The catalogue of President Obama’s failings and the recounting of his achievements as the two-term governor of Minnesota is the same. What’s different is the sharper edge aimed at his Republican rivals, particularly his more charismatic fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has surged in the polls.
“The main way we’re going to goof this up is by nominating the wrong candidate,” Pawlenty said, insisting that executive experience was essential and pointing to his record of winning over Democratic and independent voters.
“I’m tired of politicians flapping their jaw and not getting it done,” added Pawlenty, dressed casually in jeans and an open-collared shirt.
In a stuffy room with a portable fan, the crowd listened intently but didn’t react much to his speech aside from a couple chuckles and polite applause. Most said they weren’t trekking the 90 minutes to participate in Saturday’s mock election in Ames. “We’ve been there once already. It’s crazy,” said one elderly woman.
Pawlenty smoothly answered questions on a range of issues, from immigration to ethanol to the $5 billion projected deficit facing his home state.
“Sounds like he talks the talk and walks the walk,” said 81-year-old Leonard Walde. “I thought he did an awfully good job.”
“Not too bad,” was the less-than-resounding endorsement from 54-year-old Doug Peters. “He seems very knowledgeable and genuine, and he didn’t stumble.”
Lingering in the restaurant, Peters and his wife said they are planning to attend the straw poll on Saturday. Neither is ready to commit to Pawlenty, saying he’s one of three or four top choices. Meanwhile, the candidate was long gone, headed to his next campaign stop.