This is actually a “why do you want to be president?” question dressed up as a “when.” In which case, the correct answer is: “Because I’m an ambitious young politician.” The base-pleasing answer, of course, is: “Because America deserves better than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.” And the general-election-winning answer is: “Because both parties have neglected the middle class over the past 20 years and it’s time for that to stop.” Either of those latter two responses would have been fine.

But he … didn’t give them.

And when I ask Pawlenty, during a second interview in Des Moines, Iowa, exactly when he decided he was up to the grand challenge of the presidency, he answers in less than grandiose terms, explaining how he’d set up a political-action committee in 2009. I try again, saying I am curious about when he first imagined himself worthy of the history books, ready to send soldiers to their deaths and endure the national stage’s harsh toll. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I wish I had a good answer for you on that.” Pawlenty says it is not an idea that crossed his mind 15 or 20 years ago but that as he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor, he felt obliged not to take the easy path and “go make some money and play hockey and drink beer.” He adds that he almost didn’t run at all. “Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call,” he says, mentioning his wife of 24 years. He adds with a laugh, “It could have gone the other way for all the reasons you’re suggesting.”…

“He gets ripped for not being Mr. Charisma,” says Weaver. “But what you see is what you get. I think that’s what voters want these days. They might be willing to sacrifice a little glitz for someone who’s real and can accomplish things.” And if Republicans don’t insist on a street-fighting candidate, it’s always possible that the nicest guy will finish first.

In fairness, would Romney’s or Huntsman’s response be any more convincing? The one major candidate who’s positioned to answer this question in a semi-believable way is Daniels, whose CPAC speech cannily framed him as a guy so alarmed by the “red menace” of debt that he might feel obliged to run for president to help defeat it. (Paul Ryan could make the same argument even more persuasively.) Herman Cain has a good answer potentially too, that career politicians have wrecked American government so thoroughly that it’ll take a first-time officeholder to shake the country out of its stupor. Either way, the bar for answering well enough to win an election is awwwwfully low: The One’s own raison d’etre for running for president after two years in the Senate and a decade as an Illinois backbencher was nothing more than personal messianism. Elect him, we were told, and the economy would rebound, the oceans would cease to rise, and celestial choirs would sing. After that absurdity, who cares how anyone answers this question?

I continue to believe that T-Paw will slog along at 6-10 percent until the winter, when he’ll suddenly get a second look from people dissatisfied with the rest of the field. And if that’s not enough to push him over the top in Iowa, the Iowa winner will so alarm the GOP establishment that they’ll rally behind Pawlenty before New Hampshire as an electable moderate capable of bringing the base onboard. He’s got a solid shot at winning Nikki Haley’s endorsement, so he’s well positioned in South Carolina if he can make it that far. What could go wrong?