WASHINGTON – Tim Pawlenty is in limbo.
Two events over the next couple of months will go a long way to determining the former Minnesota governor's chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2012: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will soon decide whether or not to launch his own campaign, and in early to mid-July the political world will see how much fundraising juice Pawlenty has.
If Daniels does not run, Pawlenty is very likely to win the anti-Romney primary -- the contest to become the most attractive alternative to the former Massachusetts governor and putative GOP primary front-runner Mitt Romney. But even if Daniels doesn’t jump in, Pawlenty still has to show he can muscle up in the money race.
“If he’s able to show any kind of decent numbers, he could have an interesting summer,” said one well-connected Republican fundraiser who is not aligned with any of the presidential hopefuls. Expectations for Pawlenty's second quarter haul are between $7 million and $15 million, though Pawlenty backers caution against putting too much stock in the high-end number.
The former Minnesota governor has set a goal of raising $25 million for the primary and is hitting the fundraising circuit hard while Daniels dithers. Pawlenty had fundraisers in Dallas, Houston and Chicago this week, and will host more big money events in his home state as well as Colorado and California next week.
Pawlenty is also doing plenty of retail politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the official primary process begins early next year. On Friday he made his sixth trip to Iowa since the November elections, and has been to New Hampshire four times since the midterms, aides told The Huffington Post.
But Pawlenty's fundraising future would be clouded over by a Daniels candidacy.
"A good chunk -- perhaps as many as 50 percent -- of the big Republican donors have expressed significant interest in a Mitch Daniels run," said a GOP consultant familiar with some of the party's powerhouse fundraisers and financiers. "These are the people Pawlenty was hoping to get a look-in with. If Daniels runs, that makes Pawlenty running a campaign modeled the way his is quite a bit tougher."
The other big question facing Pawlenty is, why he isn’t connecting? In small settings with reporters and voters, Pawlenty is personable and engaging, if not dynamic. But he struggles when trying to speak more formally from behind a podium, at rallies or in the first GOP debate in South Carolina last week.
Pawlenty’s best moment of the debate, numerous South Carolinians told HuffPost, was an apology for supporting cap and trade legislation in the past.
“Admirably, he addressed the mistake of supporting cap and trade head on … but still left some feeling lukewarm,” state Rep. Dan Hamilton (R-Greenville) said.
One Republican National Committee member from a neighboring Southern state said Pawlenty looked “robotic” in the debate. And Pawlenty performed miserably in the straw poll conducted after the forum, receiving only seven votes out of more than 300 cast.
Republican Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, told The Huffington Post not to “evaluate any candidate by that one event.” But while Graham said Pawlenty has “unlimited potential,” he added that the Minnesotan is “going to have to come to South Carolina more and make the case.”
Rep. Tommy Stringer (R-Greenville) put his finger on a specific communications failure by Pawlenty and the four other Republicans on the stage that night.
“We need someone who can implement a viable austerity and spending reform plan while being able to communicate that we will have a better tomorrow as a result,” Stringer told HuffPost. The GOP needs a leader like British Prime Minister David Cameron, the conservative leader of the Tory Party, he added.
Daniels has a potential opening here. While the 5’ 7” Indiana governor may not exactly look the part of a potential president, no one else in the Republican field has articulated the conservative concern about the federal debt –- along with a proactive and positive political framework for how to campaign on the issue -– like Daniels has.
The Indiana governor knows budgets well, having served as the first White House budget director to President George W. Bush. But he's also shown he can incorporate his number crunching skills into a substantive discussion of spending and debt that is accessible to most people.
His February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference was an artful exhortation, rather than a grumpy hectoring. While Daniels started by labeling the $14.3 trillion national debt the “new Red Menace,” a comparison to the Soviet threat during the Cold War, he moved on to what he thinks should be done about it.
“The nation must be summoned to General Quarters in the cause of economic growth,” he said. “The friends of freedom always favor a growing economy as the wellspring of individual opportunity and a bulwark against a domineering state.”
Daniels argued for a pragmatic electoral approach to the grand goal of “keeping the Republic.” He warned against demonizing government itself and said conservatives should “display a heart for every American, and a special passion for those still on the first rung of life’s ladder.”
“I submit that, as we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit,” he said. “To keep our Republic, freedom needs every friend it can get. Let’s go find them, and befriend them, and welcome them to the great thing that is wanted to be done in our day.”
Pawlenty’s stump speech is inversely proportional to Daniels’ approach both in tone and substance. Where Daniels is mild-mannered and subdued, Pawlenty has tried to gin up a highlight reel intensity. And in contrast to Daniels’ turns of phrase and creative imagery, Pawlenty has relied on stock phrases.
“If freedom were easy, everybody around the world would be free. But this isn’t about easy. This is about rolling up our sleeves,” he said at a Tax Day rally in Concord, N.H., last month. “Valley Forge wasn’t easy. Settling the West wasn’t easy. Winning World War II wasn’t easy. Going to the moon wasn’t easy. But this is the United States of America. We are the American people.”
“The Founding Fathers created it, Ronald Reagan personified it, Abraham Lincoln stood courageously to defend it, and this national under God shall have a new birth of freedom and we will not perish from the earth,” Pawlenty said.
Cue the drum and fife corps.
Even Pawlenty’s fans admit he is not breaking through in public like he is capable of in person.
“He is a real guy and you get that sense as soon as you meet him. There is something that is lost when he stumps, almost as if he is giving stumps for the press [rather than] than the people,” Andrew Hemingway, a Tea Party leader in New Hampshire who has been wooed by Pawlenty, said in an email.
"He does get criticized, maybe, for being dry -- or whatever the right phrase is -- when he’s giving his stump speech. But I have to say, he’s not like that in person," said Jennifer Horn, another New Hampshire conservative activist, who is undecided on who she will support.
Ironically, Pawlenty was most passionate during an hour-long breakfast last week with reporters in Greenville when he talked authenticity.
“You walk into a VFW in my hometown and you got some people sitting in there wearing Carhartt jackets, drinking Miller High Life and playing pull-tabs and trying to win the meat raffle," Pawlenty said. "They don’t look up at you and say, ‘Gosh, I love his 12-point white paper on fixing Sarbanes/Oxley, and he really, he really makes a good point about the heavy burdens that the compliance on small firms is visiting on, you know, the formation and deployment of capital. And that does have implications for global competitiveness.’”
Pawlenty’s spokesman Alex Conant, sitting across from his boss, flashed a satisfied smile.
“You know, they just look at you and say, ‘You’re either a B.S.-er or you’re not. They like you or they’re not,” Pawlenty continued. “You got a couple ideas they like, and they want to know, are you authentic and real? Does your life story line up with theirs? Have you walked in their shoes? Do you have a heart for what they have a heart for? And I’ve done that. I think I can present that well on behalf of the party.”
Pawlenty advisers say he can get better on the stump, and that the important thing now is to raise money, elevate his profile, and build a network of campaign workers in key states.
Team Pawlenty has been heartened of late by a vigorous encomium to their guy from the National Review’s Stanley Kurtz, praise from Rush Limbaugh (who has developed a real dislike for Daniels) and the fact that they know they're doing everything within their control to fight for the nomination.
The knives are out for Daniels as he moves closer to a decision. He will face some very substantive and potentially problematic attacks on his record if he does decide to run. Nonetheless, a Daniels run could throw a serious wrench in the Minnesotan's plans.
The problem for Pawlenty "is he’s everyone’s second choice," said one well respected Republican operative who is not working for any of the other candidates. "Everyone likes him but they’re waiting to see what Mitch does.”
This article originally misspelled "pull-tabs."