Tim Pawlenty Gets His Post-Mortem

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty started campaigning early. He took up residence in Iowa. He stumped in front of Tea Party faithful. He upped his investment in religiosity. His campaign produced action movie ads. And in the Ames Straw Poll, he finished third, which was actually ahead of the let's-finish-better-than-sixth-place expectations his campaign had set in advance. But in the end, none of it was enough. Over at the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart says that Pawlenty's bid was "doomed from the start." And his frozen moments came in the last two debates, in which Pawlenty waited too long to go on the offensive:

He did everything to catch fire, but the spark wasn't there. You know you're in trouble when your videos are infinitely more exciting and interesting than you are. Pawlenty also committed an unforced error by creating an amazing slam that incorporated the presumed frontrunner, former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.), and his role in inspiring President Obama's chief legislative accomplishment -- "Obamneycare"-- and then refusing to repeat it when Romney was standing next to him at a debate days later.

That Pawlenty decided to finally show some fire at the Fox debate last Thursday was unfortunate. On paper, Pawlenty's takedown of Bachmann made sense. The two are fighting for the No. 2 slot during the primaries behind Romney. In reality, Pawlenty came off as a latter-day Rick Lazio, the New York Republican who ran for the Senate in 2000 against then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and whose aggressive stroll over to her podium, some say, sealed his electoral fate.

When the Pawlenty/Bachmann feud finally boiled over last Thursday night, it had a certain ferocity to it, but it only underscored how little was at stake between the two. Where the "Obamneycare" fight could have struck at the heart of Romney's entire political biography, the fight between the two Minnesotans boiled down to ... a cigarette tax. And getting mired in that picayune issue prevented Pawlenty from illuminating the argument that "made sense" -- that Pawlenty had a portfolio of results and legislative achievements, as opposed to Bachmann's tip-of-the-spear agitprop.

Over at Slate, Dave Weigel also pinpoints Pawlenty's missed opportunity to make "Obamneycare" work for him as the moment his candidacy was euthanized. But he uses an alternate history to demonstrate how Pawlenty might have been doomed before he even started:

If things had gone a little differently in 2008, John McCain would have ignored the advice of Lindsey Graham, and his gut, and chosen the safest possible running mate. That would have been Tim Pawlenty, the two-term governor of Minnesota. Graham's prediction was that Pawlenty would perform fine, and help the ticket to a seven-point loss -- which is what McCain got anyway. But a Vice Presidential Candidate Pawlenty would have become, by default, a national star.

McCain didn't choose Pawlenty. He chose Sarah Palin, which started the GOP base's love affair with an uncompromising, wildly-swinging mother of five. Pawlenty remained governor, ending his term with a successful confrontation with Democrats, and entering the 2012 presidential race as the candidate most pundits could see a rational path to the presidency for. But the Republican base thought it caught a glimpse of the next Ronald Reagan in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, it fell in love all over again with Tea Party politicians who declared total war on Barack Obama. It was also ready, in a way it had not been ready before, to give its presidential nomination to a woman.

It's interesting to think about what might have happened if Pawlenty had come out of 2008 with the higher profile that being a vice presidential pick might have accorded him. It could have cut against the perception that Romney was next in line. And it could have staved off the predicament that Pawlenty found himself in this past spring, when your elite conservative pundit-types were mooning over the never-to-materialize candidacy of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. It says something that even after Daniels made it clear he wasn't running, Pawlenty couldn't even catch fire as the preferred brand of bland, Midwestern governor-candidate. His failure to attract attention stifled campaign fundraising, and that's why, despite his third place finish behind Bachmann and Paul -- two candidates with perceived limits to their appeal -- he's done instead of moving on.

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