WASHINGTON – Those who have known Tim Pawlenty for a long time are stumped by a simple question: What happened to him?
It's not just his presidential campaign, which is at a low point. His poll numbers have spiraled downward and his $4.2 million second quarter fundraising haul was disappointing. It's also Pawlenty himself. Numerous longtime friends and associates of the former Minnesota governor told The Huffington Post the problem is deeper: They don't recognize the man running for president.
"The charisma that engaged him with Minnesotans doesn't seem to be connecting at the same level. I don't know if it's the national stage. I don't get it," said Vicki Tigwell, who grew up in the same South St. Paul neighborhood as Pawlenty and has worked with him in Minnesota politics for decades.
"He has always been one of the people that kind of stood out from the crowd. This is even, you know, as a young man, 20 years old. He was distinctive," Tigwell added.
"He is the kind of person that you want to have as your next-door neighbor. As a young man he was the kind of kid you hoped your son would be friends with, the man you'd like your daughter to bring home and say, 'This is the man I want to marry.' He's really that rock solid, decent, smart, self-effacing kind of guy."
As the Republican presidential primary heads into a crucial stretch ahead of the August 13 Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, the 50-year-old Pawlenty has been fading rather than emerging. And in interviews with more than two dozen people who have known the former governor or worked with him as far back as high school, the explanation was nearly always the same.
There is a dynamic presence to Pawlenty, a man almost universally described as the "smartest in the room." But it has remained hidden from view, replaced by a more uncertain, uncomfortable, cautious candidate. Unlocking the old Tim Pawlenty is key to whether he can recover politically and have any chance of staging a comeback.
Even if the authentic Pawlenty were to emerge, some said that would not be enough for the current tumultuous political moment.
"This is just one of those unreal times in our history where people who are as solid as Tim probably aren't going to be left standing after the money guys weigh in," said Dave Durenberger, the former Minnesota senator who hired Pawlenty to be the political director of his 1988 re-election campaign.
Pawlenty, he added, "may not exactly have been made for these times."
"A BIG PICTURE GUY"
The most common critique of the Pawlenty campaign -- that the candidate is over-coached -- was linked by several people to a fact that would, on its face, appear innocuous. Unlike any of the other GOP presidential candidates, Pawlenty has spent a substantial portion of his career as a political operative.
The first hint that he had a stiff spine for politics came, in fact, as early as his junior year of high school, when he wrote a letter to the local newspaper saying that South St. Paul High's Superintendent Dave Metzen should have his salary cut or eliminated rather than teachers getting fired during a round of budget cuts.
"It had two of the most popular teachers and their salaries down to the penny, and then my salary down to the penny and it pretty much matched up,” Metzen told HuffPost. “And the letter to the editor said, 'I think this district would be better off – even though I know Dr. Metzen – this district would be better off having two teachers versus one high-priced administrator.’”
Metzen said he called Pawlenty into his office "to chew him out."
"He wouldn't back down. He said, 'I still think two teachers are more valuable than your position,'" Metzen said. "So after that I just let him back to class and let him be."
Pawlenty remembered the incident.
"As he recalls," spokesman Alex Conant e-mailed, "the point of letter was to be against a rec center/community center project at a time when money was tight. He suggested that Dave's salary be on the table to mitigate impacts."
It was an early look at Pawlenty's confident, determined style, one that would serve him well for decades.
At the University of Minnesota, Pawlenty spent two summers -- 1980 and 1982 -- working as an intern for Durenberger. In 1983, he graduated with a B.A. in political science.
Pawlenty took a break from full-time politics to pursue a law degree, again at the University of Minnesota. But before long he was back with Durenberger, this time in a more consequential role.
In his 1988 run for re-election, the senator hired Pawlenty to serve as his political director. The race seemed likely to be a trying one. The state Democratic Farmer Labor Party had recruited an attorney general with a legendary name -- Hubert Humphrey III, son of the beloved former Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey -- to run. A poll in February of that year by the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch had Durenberger with a slim 44 percent to 40 percent lead and 16 percent undecided. The same poll gave Humphrey a 65 percent approval rating to Durenberger's 64 percent approval rating.
"He was a big picture guy," recalled Leon Oistad, Pawlenty's boss on Durenberger's 1988 Senate campaign and a former chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. "But he also managed people well and from a strategy standpoint, he was very astute." Pawlenty quickly became a "good sounding board for me to discuss some of the political strategy."
Pawlenty was also surrounded by a cast of characters who would go on to play major roles in Republican politics. Charlie Black, the influential GOP lobbyist and adviser to nearly every presidential campaign, was Durenberger's communications adviser. For an ad man, the campaign turned to a former Nixon-hand who would go on to bigger things: Fox News' Roger Ailes.
"Pawlenty would sit in on all of the strategy meetings with them," said Oistad.
Durenberger ended up coasting to a 16-point win on Election Day. Shortly thereafter, Pawlenty was scheming up his next political project: convincing a little-known businessman to run for governor of the state.
On Memorial Day, 1988, Pawlenty met with Jon Grunseth on his boat on the St. Croix River. According to an account in the largely hagiographic book, “Governor Tim Pawlenty: The Sam’s Club Republican,” he was accompanied by two fellow Durenberger staffers: Elam Baer, Durenberger's deputy campaign manager, and Tigwell, who was Grunseth’s wife at the time and had been Durenberger's finance director.
Grunseth was unknown in Minnesota politics. But Pawlenty saw in him a strong candidate. Though a self-described conservative, Grunseth was pitched as an independent voice with business savvy; a "fresh face" for both the party and voters.
To reel him in, the group brought Grunseth to county conventions with the goal of seducing him into running. It later dropped fliers at the Independent Republican Party's state convention with the title: "Why not Jon Grunseth for governor?" A few months later, Grunseth announced his candidacy.
It was an early indication of Pawlenty's power of persuasion and an indication that, like the typical campaign operative, he valued the prospects of victory over ideological purity. It was also a disaster.
Slightly more than a week before the election, it was revealed that Grunseth had had an affair with a woman named Tamara Taylor. It was also alleged that he had coaxed teenage girls to go skinny-dipping with him and his daughter. Grunseth denied the allegations, though acknowledged a past affair, as well as "wild years" in the 70s and 80s. His prospects for the governor's mansion were done and he withdrew from the race.
Pawlenty had, by that point, largely disengaged from the race. According to one aide involved in the campaign, his involvement decreased dramatically after convincing Grunseth to run. There was no indication that he knew of the candidate's personal turmoil. By then, Pawlenty had bigger things to think about: himself.
HEARING THE TRUTH?
Even during his time as governor, Pawlenty was regarded as the sharpest political mind and a micro-manager of political decisions. "Even on his [gubernatorial] re-elect here he was very involved with the polling, the TV ads, everything," said a Minnesota Republican who worked closely with Pawlenty.
All of this would seemingly give Pawlenty an advantage over the primary competition. But running for president has become such a massive undertaking in American politics that a top-tier campaign is expected to lean heavily on the help of staff. While the candidate barnstorms and shakes hands, aides plot and scheme.
The Pawlenty camp disputes the extent to which its candidate has delegated control - saying the governor still makes all the big picture, key decisions for himself. But there is no question that the Minnesotan has built a formidable roster of political talent.
Senior adviser Phil Musser was a top Romney adviser in 2008. Campaign manager Nick Ayers became a phenom at the Republican Governors Association. Adviser Sara Taylor is a Karl Rove protege, and Conant is a respected veteran of several campaigns and the Republican National Committee. Pollster Jon Lerner and political director Jon Seaton round out the group. The top tier advisers cannot be accused of milking the candidate because they are reportedly working for little or no pay.
But while hiring top advisers is what most serious candidates do, the difference with Pawlenty, according to those who know him, is that his many years as a political operative have made him something of a lone ranger. Paradoxically, Pawlenty's experience on the campaign trail is what undermines his ability to campaign.
"He hasn't had any longtime advisers, those guys who have been with him for six or eight or 10 years," said the Minnesota GOP official who has years of experience with Pawlenty. "His being an operative worked for him well in Minnesota. But you go on a national campaign and get whipsawed around … I think he kind of became divorced from what the reality and perception was out there, and he didn't have guys around him who knew him for a really long time who he knew and trusted."
As candidates, Barack Obama had David Axelrod and George Bush had Karl Rove. Pawlenty does not have a similar figure. Musser, who as executive director of the Republican Governors Association worked with Pawlenty on his 2006 re-election campaign, is the closest thing to it.
Carol Molnau was Pawlenty's lieutenant governor in Minnesota for the entirety of his two terms as governor. In an interview, she said that Pawlenty has never been willing to keep close aides who are willing to criticize him.
"He has a tendency to not be a good judge of what he needs," Molnau said. "A lot of us like to have people around us that think like we do and agree with us because we don't take criticism very well. Well that's a good thing because you don't have a lot of white water conflict. The thing is you never know when you're going off because everyone's afraid to tell you, or, the people who do, you don't see as trustworthy anymore."
"He surrounds himself with people that say 'yes' and tell him how good he's doing, but he doesn't have a lot of people who can take the chance at critiquing him, and that's a problem he's had for a long time," Molnau added.
The Pawlenty campaign declined to comment when asked about this criticism.
Leon Oistad, Pawlenty's one-time boss on the Durenberger Senate campaign, said Pawlenty's time as a political operative was "an advantage" for his presidential prospects. But while "Minnesota nice" may excite the state's residents, Oistad said it's a bit provincial for the rest of the country.
"On the national stage people are maybe looking for something a bit different than they do in Minnesota," he said.
But most longtime Pawlenty associates and watchers insisted that voters have yet to see Pawlenty at his best.
"This is a guy who had terrific timing, confidence, presence. And he's clearly lost that. He's uncertain," said Larry Jacobs, who has chaired the University of Minnesota's political studies department for the last six years.
Pawlenty's public persona has shifted over the last month or two as he's reached for a more natural feel. In the spring, his attempts to introduce himself to voters consisted of super-charged videos and a stump speech that strung together catchphrases aimed at appealing to a Tea Party focus group. The candidate's delivery was strained by attempts to muster up sufficient outrage. It wasn't believable, certainly for those who know him closely.
"They tried to roll him out as this Tea Party guy, talking about purity and don't tread on me. To me it seemed so forced," said the Minnesota GOP official.
Durenberger agreed, pinpointing signs of what he saw as a strained lack of authenticity in a comment made by Pawlenty about his wife, Mary, as well as in his syntax.
"Everything from the 'smoking hot wife' to the dropping the g's, that's not him. That isn't who he is as a person, that isn't who they are as a couple," Durenberger said.
A DAMAGING DEBATE
Pawlenty traveled to Iowa to call for an end to ethanol subsidies. He went to Florida to say that Social Security needed to be cut. And he ventured to Wall Street to bash corporate bailouts. If there was a sacred cow in Pawlenty's road, he wouldn't even tap the brakes.
The day before the June 13 debate in Manchester, N.H., Pawlenty went on the offensive against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on "Fox News Sunday," launching the term "ObamneyCare" into the political stratosphere. It was meant to use one catchy phrase to associate Romney's health plan in Massachusetts with Obama's federal law. The man was on a roll. The anticipation of a rhetorical fistfight on stage grew intense.
The debate the next night began well enough. Pawlenty's recent economic speech was an early topic. But his fortunes shifted on a dime.
"Why ObamneyCare?" CNN's John King asked Pawlenty.
Pawlenty talked about Obama and his health care plan, trying to avoid attacking Romney. But King did not let him off easy.
"Why would you choose those words maybe in the comfort of the Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was 'Obamneycare' on 'Fox News Sunday,' why is it not 'Obamneycare' standing here with the governor right there?" King asked.
As Pawlenty struggled to end the moment, Romney stood a few feet to his right, a wry smile on his face.
For longtime Pawlenty observers, the failure to attack -- the passivity on the big stage -- was completely uncharacteristic.
"In Minnesota, he would tell you he was going to punch you in the face, he would punch you in the face, and then he would remind you he told you he was going to punch you in the face. And it worked for him," said Larry Jacobs, the chair of the University of Minnesota's political studies department. "Now, it seems like a guy kind of thrashing around looking for a strategy that's going to find a base of support and an identity and contributors. And at this point he's trying to persevere, kind of the long march."
The damage from the debate performance has been extensive. Pawlenty's fundraising dried up and numerous voters at campaign events told HuffPost that they believed he missed an opportunity to show a fighter's streak.
Tom Pugh was House minority leader in the Minnesota legislature from 1999 to 2003, the same period in which Pawlenty was majority leader. Several years older, Pugh grew up five houses away from Pawlenty. Their parents were on the PTA together. The two played hockey together many times when Pawlenty was still governor.
"He chases at the puck, he's in the action, he's not hanging back just waiting for the shot," Pugh said. "It seems to be different than the personality that he's displaying, at least in that one debate."
Pugh also said he was mystified by the disappearance of Pawlenty's mojo.
"His persona to date has been flat … he seems much flatter than at any time that I've seen him," Pugh said. "I don't know if he's not enjoying this, if he's tired, if people are telling him to be a little bit more bland and gray and that the flakes will somehow disappear in the meantime."
Even Pawlenty's staunchest allies acknowledged a certain something missing from the longtime friend and colleague: his sense of humor.
"I haven't seen as much of it lately as I would have liked," said Dan McElroy, who was Pawlenty's chief of staff in the governor's office from 2004 to 2005. "I'm concerned about that. I'm hoping that will come."
Dennis O'Brien, an attorney who hired Pawlenty out of law school and went on to practice law with him for 20 years, said Pawlenty is “not boring.”
“He's a very funny, smart person," O’Brien said. "His handlers, I think, have told him to cut out some of the dry humor because half the room is falling apart and the other half is pissed off because they don't get it."
PAWLENTY'S LAST STAND: IOWA
The retort to the hand wringing over Pawlenty’s persona is that he is biding his time and investing his energy in the one place that could revive his candidacy: Iowa.
"I don't think he's lost anything. I think we're ignoring timing. His strategy is to invest a lot in Iowa, to make a good show in the straw poll and caucuses and win if you can,” said Black. “But you don't do that in June. Timing is everything.”
"He's never going to be the most dynamic speaker in the race. But you know what? Neither is Romney. Neither is Huntsman," Black added. "As I understand the strategy, they want to peak by winning Iowa and get momentum from that to go on to New Hampshire and South Carolina."
Pawlenty on Tuesday announced that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who directed the successful Iowa campaign in 2008 for her father -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee -- was coming to head up his straw poll effort, “with a focus on expanding the campaign’s grassroots operations” in the state.
But Iowa has its own question marks, and they are increasingly worrying for Pawlenty. A Des Moines Register poll showed him in sixth place behind Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. His "burn rate" -- the amount he is spending -- is estimated by rival camps to be about $100,000 a month.
Romney is not participating in the Aug. 13 straw poll, but if Pawlenty were to finish behind Bachmann, Paul and possibly even Cain, that might put his candidacy on life support.
"They're sweating it. Herman Cain was the flavor of the month last month. Bachmann takes it this month. And that has been reflected in their volunteer phone calls soliciting support - they hear those two names more than Pawlenty's," said an Iowa Republican unaffiliated with any of the candidates. "He's got to find a way toward his flavor this month."
"How does the sixth place candidate in the Iowa poll all of a sudden find support? Having been here so often, if folks haven't decided to support him yet, will they now? … [It’s a] very tense and stressful situation over in Urbandale right now," the GOP official said, referring to the Pawlenty campaign headquarters' location.
The possible entrance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry would further complicate Pawlenty’s path, adding another far more charismatic candidate -- who is appealing to large swaths of the GOP electorate -- to the mix.
Pawlenty may simply be running in the wrong election cycle. The former governor is attempting to peel off conservative primary voters but has been outflanked by Bachmann and Cain. Pragmatic Republicans hoping to pick the most electable candidate have been gravitating toward Romney, while the more moderate wing of the party leans toward Jon Huntsman. That leaves little room for a Tim Pawlenty -- and even less for one as cautious as he has been to date.
Pawlenty's most loyal supporters said they had no doubts that he will keep grinding, hoping for a breakthrough.
"Don't underestimate how hard he'll work," McElroy said. "He's going to be in more living rooms … than his competitors because he'll just work his socks off."
Tigwell said it often takes politicians “a little time to find their stride.”
"Often times it's an event. It might be a debate. It might be a speech. Then all of a sudden you're back in your niche,” she said.
But time is running out. The next six weeks will be crucial.
"He's going to stay to the end," Durenberger said. "The question is what will the end be."
Jordan Howard contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with Pawlenty's recollection of his letter to the editor in high school and to note that not all Pawlenty advisers are working for little pay.