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Pawlenty pulls out

The news this morning is that Tim Pawlenty is dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The Iowa straw poll was, so to speak, the last straw. The AP’s Brian Bakst has the story here. The comments below draw on my “Cruel thoughts on a weak field,” which anticipated Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race.

Pawlenty is the generic Republican candidate at a time when the generic Republican seems to be what is called for to match up against Obama. Without a national reputation, Pawlenty thought that a strong gubernatorial record in the state next door would prove enough to break through in Iowa and launch him to the top tier of competitors in New Hampshire. He didn’t anticipate the candidacy or impact of Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Iowa straw poll.

Bachmann is highly unlikely to secure the Republican presidential nomination, but she derailed Pawlenty’s aspirations. With her Iowa roots and appeal to a conservative base, her moment came around as a presidential candidate in yesterday’s Iowa straw poll. What Howard Dean was to Iowa Democrats in the 2004 cycle and Obama was to Iowa Democrats in the 2008 cycle, Bachmann is to Iowa Republicans in this cycle: the Ivory soap candidate, 99 and 44/100 percent pure.

Bachmann’s attacks on Pawlenty during the Republican presidential candidates’ debate this week were almost entirely false and demagogic. Those of us who admire her can’t help but think less of her as a result.

It is disappointing that Pawlenty proved unable to maintain his campaign all the way to the Iowa caucuses next year. If Bachmann is highly unlikely to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Ron Paul, the second place finisher, is even less so. Pawlenty’s chances with Iowa Republican caucus participants would have been better than they were in the straw poll event.

But it is too simple to attribute the end of Pawlenty’s campaign entirely to Bachmann and the straw poll. The Pawlenty campaign started its downward descent from the moment he refrained from confronting Mitt Romney — in the first candidates’ debate — with the assault he had leveled against “Obamneycare” on one of the Sunday morning shows when Romney wasn’t in the room. Pawlenty never recovered from that momentary failure of nerve, which is what it appeared to me at the time, though the calculation that went into it probably belies that characterization.

Republicans are looking for someone who can stand up to Barack Obama and go toe to toe with him on the national stage. The hunger among Republicans on this score is almost palpable. If Pawlenty couldn’t land a fair punch on Romney to his face — not the cheap shot on the size of Romney’s lawn that he deployed during last week’s debate — one had to doubt that Pawelenty was the guy to face down Obama.

Pawlenty sought to become the viable alternative to Romney. It is no coincidence that Rick Perry entered the race on the day that Pawlenty determined to leave it. Perry is now the alternative to Romney. Whether he is a viable alternative to Romney — whether he is a viable national candidate — we shall see. I don’t know enough about him; I haven’t seen enough of him to say.

But I can say this. I have thought that a generic Republican candidate matches up best against Obama. I may be wrong about that, but I am quite sure that Perry is far from a generic Republican candidate.

UPDATE: For more on Perry in this context, see Paul Rahe’s “After the placeholders, Rick Perry?” And Glenn Reynolds recalls another moment of Pawlenty weakness I had forgotten about.

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