Tim Pawlenty announced on Sunday morning that he is bowing out of the presidential race after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll, a move that resets the GOP primary and once again highlights the influence of the Ames event.
Appearing on ABC News’ This Week, the former governor of Minnesota said his message – touting his record as a two-term governor who cut spending in a blue state – simply didn’t resonate during the campaign.
“Obviously that message didn’t get the kind of traction and lift we had hoped for coming out of the straw poll,” Pawlenty said. “We needed to get some lift to have a pathway forward. That didn’t happen, so I’m announcing this morning that I’m going to be ending my campaign for president.”
He said later: “For me, what I thought I brought forward was a rational, established, credible, strong record of results based on experience of a two-term governor in a blue state. But the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different.”
News of Pawlenty’s decision leaked before his TV appearance, when he informed supporters on a conference call in the early Sunday morning hours.
Pawlenty's departure would have been stunning only a few months ago, when he entered the race as the candidate many thought would be front-runner Mitt Romney's toughest competition. But his campaign failed to gain traction nationally or in Iowa, where he spent weeks campaigning before the straw poll, earning plaudits for organization but failing to excite voters. The poor showing in the straw poll was just another sign his campaign was lagging well behind expectations – and immediately sparked speculation he would not remain in the race much longer.
Although he received as little as 2 percent support in some national polls, the ex-governor’s exit has significant implications for the Republican primary. His vaunted organization is now up for grabs, giving a candidate like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who declared his campaign only Saturday, a ready-made unit he could potentially inherit.
Pawlenty’s third-place finish at the straw poll was proof he had some support in the Hawkeye state despite his campaign’s struggles. In Iowa, his exit clarifies the state’s race as one between Rep. Michele Bachmann, the clear front-runner after winning Saturday’s straw poll, and Perry. The Texas governor will have to make up for lost time after his late entrance, but his record in Texas, rural upbringing, and overt religious message seems poised to resonate with Iowa Republicans. He makes his first visit to Iowa later on Sunday, at an event Bachmann also plans to attend.
Nationally, Perry is now a clear alternative to Romney, who to this point has easily been able to fend off challenges from Pawlenty and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
None of the remaining candidates should count on an endorsement, at least imminently. Pawlenty said he’ll support another candidate “eventually – but not anytime soon.” He added that after being on the short list to be John McCain’s vice presidential nominee in 2008, he’s also not interested in being considered for this slot this time around.
Pawlenty and campaign staffers made no secret that his poor finish in the straw poll caused him to drop out. Allies said he needed to come in first or second in order to keep campaign donations flowing into the campaign. But he lost not only to Bachmann, but also to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul - both of whom received more than twice the number of votes Pawlenty did.
“We had some success raising money, but we needed to continue that, and Ames was a benchmark for that,” he said. “If we didn’t do well in Ames, we weren’t going to have enough fuel to keep the car going down the road.”
The end of Pawlenty's campaign cements the straw poll's reputation as a place where struggling campaigns come to die. Pawlenty joins a list that includes Lamar Alexander, Sam Brownback, Elizabeth Dole, Dan Quayle, and Tommy Thompson, all of whom dropped out of the race after disappointing showings in the quadrennial mock election.
Only two of the past five winners of the straw poll -- George W. Bush and Bob Dole -- have gone on to win the nomination. The Republican primary is unusually unpredictable this year, with the late entrance of Perry and the absence of a commanding front-runner.
That a mock election run by the state party eliminated a serious candidate like Pawlenty is certain to renew debate over Iowa's outsized impact on presidential politics, with Pawlenty lagging behind Paul, who is viewed more as a straw poll phenomenon than a party standard-bearer.
"The Republicans in Iowa have a disproportionate impact on the process, and that's the process,'' said Republican lobbyist Justin Sayfie, co-chairman of Pawlenty's campaign in Florida, where the former governor had landed several endorsements from key Republican lawmakers. "We had the best organization of any of the campaigns in Florida, and I think he could have done well here."
His defeat at Bachmann's hands was particularly symbolic. The tea party hero had outshone Pawlenty since declaring her campaign for president, effortlessly supplanting him as the favorite in Iowa. In recent weeks, the ex-governor had begun heavily criticizing his home-state congresswoman and her legislative record, arguing that she was all rhetoric and no substance. But Pawlenty's sharp criticisms failed to slow Bachmann's momentum.
Many will trace the roots of his campaign's failure to a mid-June debate in New Hampshire, when Pawlenty, despite prodding from the moderator, backed down from criticizing Romney's Massachusetts health care plan, which only a day earlier he had called "Obamneycare." He later admitted it had been a mistake to back down.
Many of Pawlenty’s top advisers have been working for little money for month as the campaign payroll struggled to keep pace with the muscular infrastructure it put in place – Pawlenty raised just $4.2 million during the first three months of his effort.
“He is an incredibly talented person who offered a lot of good ideas,” said Sara Fagen, a top adviser to Pawlenty. “He is someone who I think lifted the brand of the Republican Party, and unfortunately this wasn’t his time. He’s a young, bright person, with a great future in politics if he wants it.”