AMES, Iowa -- 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 predicition 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. There might have been an opening for Michele Bachmann anyway. (Pawlenty had first encountered and opposed 11 years ago when she was an insurgent Republican activist.) The rise of Palin, though, created a need and a certainty among Republicans for an exciting female conservative candidate.
Did Pawlenty had a chance to get past this? He was more acceptable to the Republican elite than Bachmann was. If she faded, he would have been well positioned to take her support in Iowa. Social conservatives found him acceptable. Fiscal conservatives liked him better than Romney. In retrospect, though, he might have euthanized his campaign at the second presidential debate in New Hampshire. After trying out a new line on campaign stops -- calling Mitt Romney's health care plan "Obamneycare" -- Pawlenty dialed it back, and passed on the chance to attack Romney after moderator John King gave him multiple chances to do so.
After that, some voters and donors that I talked to worried that Pawlenty lacked the grit to be a successful candidate against Barack Obama. Pawlenty never overcame that. But he might have never had a chance to. A candidate can catch on slowly, but voters kept looking past Pawlenty for something more exciting. One of the last people I talked to on Saturday, after Michele Bachmann won the straw poll, was a Bachmann supporter from Nebraska named Jules Ostrander.
"Two weeks ago I had no idea who Michele Bachmann really was," he told me. "Then I had a dream about Michele Bachmann. I saw she was a born again Christian. I'm a born again Christian. I knew I had to be here."
It was truly difficult to imagine anyone saying that about Pawlenty. Unfortunately for him, passion and passionate opposition to Barack Obama mean more to the GOP voters of 2011 than safe, plodding political success does.
Here are the statements from Pawlenty's rivals, bidding him farewell. Bachmann:
This morning I spoke with Governor Pawlenty to express my respect and admiration for him, and to wish him and his family well. Running for the presidency requires enormous self-sacrifice. Governor Pawlenty brought an important voice and ideas to the campaign, and he served the people of Minnesota and our country well. Our party and our country are better as a result of his service and commitment.
Tim Pawlenty and his entire team ran an honorable campaign. I admire his accomplishments as a two term Governor with a record of results for his state. I consider him a friend and I know he has a bright future ahead of him as a leader in the Republican Party.
Tim Pawlenty is an accomplished Governor, a proud conservative, and someone of tremendous character. Our families became close while we were serving together as governors and we are honored to call the Pawlentys dear friends. I know this wasn't an easy decision for Tim and Mary, and I wish them nothing but the best. Tim should be proud that he brought to this race ambitious solutions to turn around our nation's economy and to tackle debt and spending. I hope that all of his supporters continue to stay engaged in this defining election and work with us to ensure that our party wins in November.
Governor Pawlenty's decision to end his campaign is his to make, and I respect that decision. He and his many supporters have put forth a great effort, and should be applauded for it. As Republicans survey a new list of candidates today, including the departure of a candidate who is credible, experienced and who had a real record to run on, it is appropriate to question the inflated role of an event like the Ames Straw Poll in the process. That a pay-to-play gathering in Iowa six months before the first real ballots are cast can be such a qualifying -- or disqualifying -- event is something the media and tens of millions of Republican voters need to think about. A lot of voices have not been heard yet, and it is far too early for the 'system' to be picking winners and losers. If there is a message from Ames, it is that this race is wide open and that the vast majority of Republicans and Independents are still looking for the candidate who can win the White House in 2012.
And the man he has to thank, Rick Perry:
Tim Pawlenty is a good friend and colleague who I have worked closely with over the years, including visiting our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a governor, Tim stuck to conservative principles despite leading a blue state like Minnesota. He and Mary are true patriots who are committed to our country, and ran an honorable campaign that reflected their integrity. Gov. Pawlenty’s common-sense conservative voice will remain prominent and influential as we work to beat President Obama in 2012 and get America working again.