If you believe, as I do, that Republicans need to nominate a presidential candidate with executive experience if they’re to defeat the incumbent Barack Obama, then Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race this weekend is a real loss.
For whatever reason, Pawlenty couldn’t turn that experience into success on the campaign trail. He’s been described as “boring,” but at the same time managed to draw plenty of attention for his scraps with primary opponents Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. Boring people don’t find themselves in the spotlight for such reasons (though it must be noted that Pawlenty rarely was viewed as coming out of those scraps for the better).
Similarly, Pawlenty was described as the “generic Republican” when, as recently as last month, such a blank slate had an 8-percentage-point lead on Obama in Gallup’s poll (this month, Obama posted a still-shaky 45 percent to 39 percent lead over the “generic Republican”). That’s in part because he ticked a lot of boxes on the checklist. But great resumes don’t always make great candidates, and Pawlenty is another example of that.
A continued campaign by Pawlenty might have helped raise the games of those candidates who will carry on. But his departure after a third-place finish in a straw poll with very little predictive power, combined with his persistently disappointing poll and fund-raising numbers, shows the loss didn’t end his justification for staying on so much as he desperately needed a win, even a superficial one, to give him such a justification.
What’s disconcerting is that Pawlenty’s departure leaves just three ex-governors in the GOP running: Mitt Romney (Massachusetts), Jon Huntsman (Utah) and the newest arrival, Rick Perry (Texas). That would seem to be plenty — except that Huntsman’s campaign is going nowhere, Romney has plateaued while voters seem intent on finding a Plan B, and Perry is too fresh on the scene for anyone to judge how he’s going to hold up as a national candidate.
Going into this campaign, there was a much longer list of potential candidates with significant gubernatorial experience: the aforementioned four plus Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Jeb Bush of Florida, Mitch Daniels of Indiana Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Gary Johnson of New Mexico (just 26 months ago, before his affair with an Argentinian woman was revealed, South Carolina’s Mark Sanford would have made that list as well). Then there are hot-shot first-termers Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. All declined to run except for Johnson (who, rumors have it, is actually still a candidate).
Whether you like or dislike particular names on that list, that’s a lot of executive experience sitting on the sidelines ahead of a pivotal election.
Romney, Perry and Bachmann — in that order — appear for now to be the possible nominees. Bachmann very soon will have to demonstrate she brings to the table something other than a history of saying “no” to things like Obamacare that pretty much everyone on the right disliked (Pawlenty showed the other candidates the way here, even if he couldn’t quite finish the job).
Only Romney and Perry could inspire real fear in the Obama re-election headquarters. Either of them might well prove to be a winner, but one would have hoped for something more than a de facto two-man race in mid-August 2011.
– By Kyle Wingfield