WASHINGTON -- Tim Pawlenty's ad buy in Iowa signals to some that he's hearing Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) footsteps and is nervous the House firebrand could overtake him as the favorite to win the Republican presidential primary in the Hawkeye State early next year.
"What that $50,000 ad buy tells us is he is worried about his prospects in [the] Ames [straw poll in August] and his fundraising isn't going very well. Otherwise it would be a lot bigger buy," said one Iowa Republican operative unaffiliated with any of the presidential candidates. "The buzz in Iowa is pretty big for Bachmann and not good for Pawlenty."
One well-connected GOP consultant in Washington said that next month's fundraising report disclosures could hasten the talk of Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, going down and Bachmann taking his place as the chief alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
"[Bachmann] is killing Pawlenty. Wait until you see these FEC numbers. It's going to be pathetic," the consultant said of Pawlenty's fundraising numbers.
On Tuesday, Pawlenty told Politico that the ad buy was "aimed at getting more broadly known in Iowa."
Pawlenty's decision to be the first candidate advertising on Iowa television comes one week after a GOP debate performance that was defined by one woeful exchange: He ran away from his previous criticism of Romney on health care, stumbled over his answer, got up and ran away some more.
The Iowa operative said that "debates don't typically influence Iowans," so the fact that this one is doing so "means it was a really bad performance/blunder."
Bachmann, by contrast, was poised, dynamic and on-message in the debate. She introduced herself to voters as a tax attorney and mother of five children and 23 foster children who has taken on the Republican establishment in Washington from the right flank of the House GOP.
"I definitely believe her momentum is gaining," said Iowa Sen. Kent Sorensen (R), who is Bachmann's lead organizer in the state. "Is she perceived as the front-runner? I don't know. It probably depends on who you talk to."
"But she has not been running for two years like some people have," Sorensen added, in a thinly disguised crack at Pawlenty and Romney. "She is gaining traction. She's not stagnant."
But if Bachmann is to capitalize on her momentum, she will have to significantly improve her organization in the state, Iowa sources said.
"Her ground game needs to mature quickly for her to be able to truly be considered the front-runner," said Ann Trimble-Ray, a key Iowa organizer for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has indicated support for Bachmann but is so far remaining neutral.
"So I'd rate it a toss-up -- gain for Bachmann and slip for Pawlenty over a month ago," Trimble-Ray said.
A senior Iowa Republican said there is "no question" Pawlenty's Iowa team is very concerned about Bachmann, "but at present she seems to be taking Iowa for granted from an organizational standpoint."
"This is a big mistake," the GOP official said. "The story in Iowa now isn't just how well the Pawlenty campaign is organized and prepared, [but also] how completely disorganized and inexperienced the Bachmann team is in Iowa."
Iowa is the first state to vote in the Republican primary, though the party conducts caucuses rather than ballot voting. Romney is organizing in the state but, unlike his 2008 presidential bid, he is not spending a lot of money and is downplaying the Iowa's importance to his electoral prospects. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is all but skipping the state and is focusing his energy on New Hampshire.
That leaves Pawlenty and Bachmann as the two candidates with the best chance of winning Iowa. Whoever emerges victorious after the caucuses will enter New Hampshire, which votes next, positioned to take on Romney. If Huntsman fails to gain traction and no other candidate catches fire, the race could come down to Romney and the winner of the Pawlenty/Bachmann showdown.
But while Bachmann has the buzz, Pawlenty "is diving for loose balls," according to one Iowa Republican. "In a state that demands organizational prowess, that kind of hustle may make the difference."
Pawlenty has been to Iowa 25 times since April 2010, compared to Bachmann's eight days in the state since that time, according to the Des Moines Register. She only recently began placing staff there. Her former congressional chief of staff, Andy Parrish, moved his family to West Des Moines last week. Pawlenty, meanwhile, has had experienced operatives, such as former state chairman Chuck Larson, laying the groundwork for his campaign in Iowa since last year.
The Iowa Republican official detailed some of Bachmann's recent missed opportunities.
In an "extremely smart move following a shaky debate performance the night before," Pawlenty went on radio talk show host Jan Mickelson's program the morning after the New Hampshire debate. "Additionally, his staff were hitting the phones with talking points about the debate to shore up recruits and precinct leaders," the official said.
"How did Bachmann take advantage of the white-hot buzz coming from the CNN debate? Nothing. No personal presence," the official said, also noting that Sorensen was at the debate site in New Hampshire -- not in Iowa -- "making a big deal about it via Facebook posts and such."
"Even after [Bachmann's] strong performance, there was no organizational outreach to try and sign up activists or county chairs in the days that followed," the official added.
Bachmann also reportedly did not have staff at a half-day event this past Saturday in Des Moines where roughly 1,000 Iowa Republicans attended a seminar on reducing deficit spending. Pawlenty spoke at the event, and his staffers were some of the few present holding clipboards and collecting names to contact.
"If an Iowa activist is going to spend seven-plus hours listening to deficit reduction presentations, you can guarantee those activists will not only be straw poll attendees, but will want to be active precinct and county leaders," the GOP official said.
Bachmann will officially launch her campaign from Iowa on Monday.