Campaign spokesman Alex Conant codified Pawlenty's goals for the Ames straw poll, coming up in three weeks, in an interview with Katrina Trinko:
We want to show progress in Ames, [do] better than sixth or seventh.
Nick Ayers explained Ames this way to the New York Times:
The media certainly treat this as a traditional kick-off. It’s a great opportunity to show organization, and show momentum developing. We accept as fact the Des Moines Register poll that ran three weeks ago, that showed us in a solid sixth-place finish. We’ve got to show real movement.
Very well, then. Expectations are set quite nicely, because the Pawlenty campaign is obviously going to blow past sixth place. Look at the fabled DMR poll. In it, Pawlenty gets 6 percent, putting him behind Romney (23 percent), Bachmann (22 percent), Cain (10 percent), Gingrich (7 percent) and Paul (7 percent). Two of those candidates, Romney and Gingrich, are not buying space or tickets for Ames. Pawlenty's "better than sixth" goal is ridiculously achievable -- he needs to stay ahead of Santorum and McCotter, who are competing, and not fall behind Perry, who's doing well in polls but probably won't be in the race yet. The point of "better than sixth" is to tee us up for a fourth place showing or spin a third place showing behind Bachmann and Paul as a victory against a candidate who's going to burn out and a candidate who can only do well in straw polls.
Just in case, I asked Conant if there was any Ames showing that would convince Pawlenty to leave the race.
"No offense," said Conant, "but that's sort of a dumb question. We're confident that we'll show progress, but we can beat Bachmann, et al, in the caucuses regardless of what happens at Ames straw poll."