Pawlenty’s problem

A long-time reader offers these thoughts on Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and this week’s debate among the Republican presidential candidates:

Tim Pawlenty had a bad Monday night, but not for the reason commonly being cited. The common view is that Pawlenty set himself back through a weak response to an invitation by the moderator to explain why he used the term “Obamneycare” to describe Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform legislation. Pawlenty initially ducked the question. When pressed, he confined his response to this: “I just cited President Obama’s own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.”
I imagine that Pawlenty didn’t want to play the attack dog in this first encounter with Romney, and therefore declined to be goaded into that role by CNN. It was an understandable decision, but probably a mistaken one. Once called upon to explain his prior attack, Pawlenty should have done so more forcefully.
But the mistake is of no consequence. Pawlenty will have many other good opportunities to go after Romney on the health care issue. When the first votes are cast next January, no one will remember what Pawlenty said or didn’t say in a June debate.
The real problem for Pawlenty on Monday was the outstanding performance of Michele Bachmann. Her performance helped confirm the sense that Bachmann may do to Pawlenty in Iowa what Mike Huckabee did to Romney there in 2008. To be sure, Pawlenty has advantages Romney lacked – he’s from a neighboring state and is a more authentic social conservative. But Bachmann may be stronger in Iowa than Huckabee was. She has Iowa roots, and is a much better-rounded conservative.
Pawlenty isn’t the only candidate who should be worried about Bachmann. If Bachmann were to win in Iowa and run well in New Hampshire, she would emerge as a credible challenger to Romney (assuming he’s still the front-runner), particularly with the South Carolina primary looming.
And Bachmann could do well in New Hampshire. Consider the 2010 Republican Senate primary in that state. Ovide Lamontagne, the Tea Party candidate, came within approximately 1,600 votes of capturing the nomination despite spending only around $500,000. If Bachmann continues to shine, she might reasonably expect a significant portion of Lamontagne’s 51,000 plus votes (37 percent of the total).
Nor should Bachmann be pessimistic about capturing a respectable share of the 53,000 votes (38 percent) cast for the victor, Kelly Ayotte, who spent around $3 million. Though not the Tea Party candidate, Ayotte is a solid conservative who received the backing of Sarah Palin (and of Mitt Romney).
It would be foolish to predict a Bachmann win in New Hampshire, especially with non-Republicans eligible to participate. But a strong showing hardly seems out of the question. For example, Bachmann might finish second if she were to double Mike Huckabee’s 2008 total of 27,000 votes. She could reach that number by essentially matching Lamontagne’s 2010 number in an election with many fewer votes than will be cast next year.
54,000 votes would likely leave Bachmann well behind Romney, who can reasonably aspire to matching McCain’s 2008 winning total of 89,000. But if Bachmann gets up a head of steam, I would consider 54,000 votes a floor, not a ceiling.
Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum. Until Monday, there had been a vacuum among the Republican presidential candidates – no natural favorite for the Tea Party vote had entered the race (I would have thought that Rick Santorum might have a claim for that vote, but perhaps his 12 years in Washington disqualify him). But now, Michelle Bachmann looks like a decent bet to fill that void.

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