PERRY, IOWA – Tim Pawlenty stepped off his rented RV in this former railroad town, took one look at the handful of aides and reporters waiting for him to walk into an office building, drew himself up to his full height and announced: "I'm going to the popcorn stand."
He wasn't asking permission. And with that, he marched across the street and bought movie theater style bags of popcorn for himself and his staff from the small red-roofed stand that is open one day a week for four hours.
He walked back across the street, did an interview with a local radio reporter while munching on his snack, and joked minutes later with the 15 people who attended his town hall event that if he choked on the popcorn it would be "a good choke."
Pawlenty is finally having some fun running for president. Not too much, mind you -- he is from Minnesota after all. But after straining for months to be presidential -- and failing to connect with Republican primary voters -- Pawlenty has chucked the routine and decided to just be himself.
The new approach was evident over two days of campaign events: He called an audience member out of the crowd at one stop to take questions alongside him, sprinkled his speeches with impromptu jokes and asides and practically sneered at President Obama as he lambasted the president's policies. He laughed a lot, too.
Gone were the poll-tested Tea Party cliches that were peppered throughout Pawlenty's speeches earlier this year and the plastic grin that he wore many times. His eyes had focus and intensity, not the preoccupied, deer-in-the-headlights expression of previous months.
"I'm just kind of throwing off any ideas of scripts or stuff, and just saying what I think and what I believe, and trying to just be myself, and am being myself," he said in an interview on Thursday in Fort Dodge, a run-down city of about 25,000, a little under two hours northwest of Des Moines.
Pawlenty has been finding his own voice for a while in fits and starts, but watching him talk to voters this week was the clearest evidence that he is much closer to touching something real as a candidate -- that intangible feeling that voters get of connecting with a candidate -- than he has been at any point.
Pawlenty admitted that for some time he has been constrained as a candidate, and essentially acknowledged that the criticism many leveled at him for months now -- that he has been over-coached -- was legitimate.
"Any campaign, of course, as it gets organized, tries to get the candidate on some sort of script-like message, and for me it just didn't feel authentic or real. It's not that what I was saying wasn't true. It was just not in my own voice and not in the way I would say it," Pawlenty told The Huffington Post.
"Instead of trying to deliver my words in somebody else's voice, I've just shed all of that and am just now presenting it in a more informal, authentic, passionate way that I believe in," he said. "And it's more enjoyable, it's more meaningful and it's more authentic."
Whether it's enough to revive a struggling campaign is an open question. Those who have already written off Pawlenty will say it's too late. But that's almost certainly an imprudent and premature conclusion.
Iowa voters "can turn very quickly," said Erin Seidler, a veteran Democratic operative who now is a political consultant in Des Moines, and who attended Pawlenty's speech to the rotary club at the Wakonda Country Club in Des Moines Friday morning.
"I think the pressure is on Michele Bachmann," she said.
However, the national and local polls show Pawlenty has got a steep, uphill climb. He has actually slipped backward in national surveys, and has been at either 2 or 3 percent in five of the last six polls. He cited a recent Iowa poll by The Conservative Journal as evidence that he is gaining in the state where he is focusing all of his attention, but even in that survey he was still only at 13 percent compared to Rep. Michele Bachmann's (R-Minn.) 33 percent.
In addition, there are rumblings of "trouble in paradise" among Pawlenty's staff. Two Republican sources contacted The Huffington Post on Friday, independent of each other, to share rumors that Pawlenty's campaign manager, Nick Ayers, could be on his way out, maybe even to work for Texas Gov. Rick Perry if he jumps into the presidential primary.
"That's insane. That's on the record," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. Ayers laughed out loud when asked about the rumor and dismissed it out of hand.
And then there is the prospect of a Perry candidacy. It looks as if Perry will not be a major factor at the Aug. 13 Ames Straw Poll -- though the state party will rule Saturday afternoon on whether his name is on the straw poll ballot. But even if it is, Perry's Iowa supporters said this past week they are not planning to make a big push to show support for him in Ames, so Pawlenty can still hope for a strong showing there.
Yet beyond that, if Bachmann falters, it could be Perry who becomes the preferred alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, leaving Pawlenty still on the periphery.
Then again, both Bachmann and Perry could fade. And if Pawlenty does well enough at Ames to stick around through the fall and into the winter, he could still emerge as the most solid choice.
"We're going to grind it out," he said Friday afternoon, using a hockey term after playing in a pickup game in Urbandale on Friday afternoon.
He is certainly working hard in the weeks leading up to Ames, which counts for a lot in this state. He had events morning until night around Iowa every day this past week, and has a full slate of events each day next week as well. He will presumably continue the routine the first week of August and into the week of the straw poll.
Pawlenty's ability to organize support for Ames has never been in doubt. He is spending $1 million on the effort and has a disciplined and professional effort working on his behalf. But the question has always been whether he could actually inspire any support. The common view -- from voters and politicos -- has been that no matter how hard Pawlenty worked to recruit supporters for Ames, his lack of dynamism would be overwhelmed by Bachmann's rock star appeal with Tea Party voters.
But Pawlenty's newfound authenticity had registered with many voters who spoke with HuffPost. His personality is not boisterous or ebullient, but by stripping away the facade that previously obscured him, Pawlenty did, in fact, convey feeling.
"Pawlenty's got more passion than what I've seen before," said Gaylord Victora, a 57-year-old pharmacist from Webster City, who listened to Pawlenty speak in the basement of the Briggs Wood Golf Course club house.
Victora, who asked questions of Pawlenty about the constitutionality of the Department of Education and other federal agencies, said he was still leaning toward supporting Bachmann in the straw poll, but that he was now reconsidering "based on what I saw here today."
At the same event, Jan Artrip, who came with her husband Rev. Ray Artrip, said, "I'm with [Pawlenty] after today."
"It's the fact that he has leadership experience and Michele does not," Mrs. Artip said.
Even after a more subdued performance in front of the Wakonda Country Club on Friday morning, Seidler said that she saw "a little more fire in the belly than I've seen from him."
As Pawlenty's organizational effort has roared into full gear, Bachmann's commitment to that task has been in question this week -- though she is hitting the hustings this weekend in Iowa and will no doubt get better at mentioning Ames in her speeches and having her campaign sign up supporters.
She will be stepping into what is emerging as full-blown political combat. Pawlenty has sharpened his message and is going after Bachmann more directly than ever. Over and over again in his speeches to voters, he hammered his main message that Iowans should not give their support to a candidate with no executive experience.
"Barack Obama's numbers nationally are not very good. You look at the swing states where this election is going to be won or lost, his numbers are awful. The main way we're going to goof this up is to nominate the wrong candidate as a Republican," he told voters at the town hall in Perry. "So please think about this. Iowa is first but you also want to be right. It's not much of a consolation prize to rocket somebody out of Iowa only to find out they really can't be the nominee, they really can't beat Barack Obama, and they're really not equipped to be president of the United States in one of the most challenging chapters of our history."
"The next president better have some executive experience, better have run something large … I did that," he said. "We have one leading candidate who is running away from his record. We have one leading candidate who has no record of results."
The message was effective, at least with some voters.
"It's absolutely necessary to say, 'Hey, here I am,'" said Mr. Atrip, a 65-year-old Church of Christ minister in Webster City who, like his wife, was on the fence about whether to support Pawlenty or Bachmann until he heard Pawlenty speak on Thursday. "He's stating comparisons, saying, 'I've done this and they haven’t.'"
Artrip also said that Pawlenty's sharpened elbows were helping the candidate overcome the perception that he is weak, which proliferated after the New Hampshire debate in mid-June.
"He's stronger now than he was," Artrip said. "He's a very nice gentleman, but sometimes in being nice it's not going to do a whole lot for you, other than say, 'Well that was nice.' But he needs to be able to separate himself from others and say, 'I've done this and I've done this. I have a record to show this.'"
Pawlenty took a glass-half-full view of the struggles he has had up until now.
"In a weird kind of way it's actually been better that we've been through this process," he said during his interview with HuffPost. "I think we've come out the other side of it a better candidate. You don't always wish for challenges but I think the practical effect of it is that."
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more