Political Hay

The Hard Truth About Pawlenty

He simply wasn't what the Republican nominating electorate was looking for.

By 8.15.11

He vowed to tell Americans only "hard truths," but Sunday morning, just hours after finishing a disappointing third place in the Ames straw poll, Tim Pawlenty faced a hard truth of his own and decided to end his presidential campaign. Tight funds and a disappointing finish might have been the reasons he quit, but they weren't the reasons why his campaign stalled.

Pawlenty was one of the first to announce his bid for president, giving himself adequate lead time to put together a solid campaign. Though his record looked impressive, the media labeled his personality as too vanilla. This, in and of itself, may not have been enough to hurt him substantially -- especially pre-Obama -- but his laidback demeanor and Minnesota Nice persona became a poor match against what the primary electorate wanted.

There was already one charming guy in the White House, sending a thrill up Democratic voters' legs. And the Tea Party did not want someone plain vanilla in either the flavor of their conservatism or their personality.

While the media fixated on Pawlenty's personality, the candidate himself didn't seem to know who he was. Voters, like toddlers, need consistency. His bold truth-telling pledge seemed to disappear from his campaign speeches as quickly as it appeared. When he got in a good jab at Mitt Romney's health care plan -- calling it "Obamneycare" -- he backed down from the comparison when in Romney's presence at a debate. Pawlenty should have decided earlier in the game who he wanted to be and stuck to it. It also wouldn't have hurt had he decided to let loose some confrontational rhetoric sooner, rather than later.

Finally, no amount of funds or straw poll finishes could compare to the effect Michele Bachmann had on her former governor's campaign. All of his flaws seem to be magnified in her presence; from the outset, she outshined him in every way: Announcing her candidacy during a debate (as he looked on, feigning a smile), financial resources (she raised $4.2 million her second quarter), charisma (vanilla has never appeared next to her name), and debate techniques (she has been declared the winner or a close second to Romney in the last two debates).

This was never clearer during the last debate, which turned out to be more of a catfight, than a boxing match, between Pawlenty and Bachmann -- with the latter walking away with the least amount of scratches. Whether because Bachmann is an attractive, poised woman, or perhaps because she is the superior candidate of the two, every time Pawlenty corrected her or lambasted her record, he ended up worse off -- looking more like a whiny schoolboy or bumbling bully than intelligent peer.

Pawlenty's criticisms of Bachmann weren't without merit. He has more experience as an executive and a track record of getting things done. But his persona was so dull compared to Bachmann's, his answers so varied between too nice and too defensive, he got lost in her shadow and never found his way beyond it.

In the end, Pawlenty's campaign faced too many obstacles. The timing wasn't right. Republicans want a dynamic cheerleader with a record of titanium conservatism -- and all they got was a straight-laced politician. There is a case to be made that a blue-state conservative governor will be a good fit for the general election. But this particular governor just didn't fit in with what the Tea Party-infused GOP is demanding.

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.