Pawlenty Aims for Surge in Critical Month Ahead

By Scott Conroy - July 11, 2011

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The lowered expectations may suit Pawlenty as he seeks to gain momentum. On “Meet the Press” and in a subsequent  appearance on “Fox and Friends” Monday morning, he seemed eager to highlight his sixth-place showing in the Des Moines Register poll with the knowledge that he was likely to improve on that showing over the next month.

The former Minnesota governor's inner circle purports to being unfazed.

"We feel good about our organization, we feel good about our message, and we feel good about our chances in the Iowa caucuses," Conant said.

Several Pawlenty operatives assigned to early-voting states who spoke on the condition of anonymity echoed Conant's faith in a stay-the-course mentality.

"We're not moving away from the tried and true because it's the tried and true -- it's always worked," one of them said. "We're trying to build an operation that's going to fully capitalize at the moment of critical mass."

To critics, these loyalists are in denial: The obvious reality is that Pawlenty just isn't catching on. But within the campaign, he and his advisers are taking heart from a previous political primary season -- and a very recent one at that. Only four years ago, John McCain's summer of 2007 included a campaign implosion that caused the Arizona senator to be written off in many quarters. And yet, by persevering and not spooking, the McCain ship righted itself and won the Republican nomination.

"My own view is that there's not much need for a change in strategy," a senior Pawlenty adviser said. "I think we have a good core message established for the governor."

Other allies suggested that while other candidates may be outshining him at the moment, Pawlenty's solid operation and slow-and-steady strategy would pay off in the long run.

"There was a sense a few months ago that this was probably going to be the case, so this isn't a surprise, and we don't plan to change our approach," one early-state Pawlenty operative said of the current doldrums, predicting that rivals he labeled as "fringe candidates," such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, would eventually fade.

If so, it's an open question whether it will happen in time to help Pawlenty. And whether she's a fringe candidate or not, one thing has become increasingly clear to Team Pawlenty: Bachmann, not Romney, poses the most immediate threat to their candidate -- especially in Iowa. The fiery congresswoman has surged to the top of the polls in the Hawkeye State and intends to make a play to win the Ames Straw Poll.

After taking heat for declining a chance during last month's debate in New Hampshire to ding Romney over the universal health care plan he implemented in Massachusetts, Pawlenty appeared eager not to make the same mistake twice when handed an opportunity to contrast himself with Bachmann during his "Meet the Press" appearance on Sunday.

Pawlenty noted that he liked and respected his fellow Minnesotan, and then launched into one of the most direct candidate-issued attacks of what has so far been a relatively tame early campaign season.

"Her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent," Pawlenty said of Bachmann. "It's nonexistent. And so we're not looking for folks who, you know, just have speech capabilities. We're looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion. I've done that, she hasn't."

Sharp attacks like these could help mitigate Pawlenty's "boring" label -- an ingrained perception that has frustrated both the candidate and his staff, who have worked to generate excitement without jeopardizing his authentically low-key style.

During an extended Iowa campaign swing planned for the latter half of this month, Pawlenty will keep the heat on Bachmann as he tries to distinguish himself from the rest of the field. Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles up I-35 in Minneapolis, his campaign team will be anxiously awaiting the emergence of evidence to suggest that their long-haul strategy is finally paying off.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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