Don't count Pawlenty out just yet

Pawlenty will be aided, as well, by the fact that Mitt Romney has announced he’s skipping the Straw Poll he won in 2008, and that Jon Huntsman is skipping Iowa altogether. And even if Texas’s Rick Perry, who has theoretical appeal to the Tea Party and social conservative activists in Iowa, jumps into the race in a few weeks, he’s not going to have time to assemble the kind of labor-intensive bus caravan effort necessary to show well in Ames. A decisive win over Bachmann and Cain in the Straw Poll—a real possibility since Bachmann is 18 Iowa visits behind Pawlenty in her native state, while Cain has shown signs of organizational weakness—could help Pawlenty begin consolidating social conservative support to win the Caucuses, and go a long way towards his ultimate goal of becoming the “true conservative” alternative to Mitt Romney.

At that point, all sorts of horizons could open up for the Minnesotan. While he’s shown very little strength in New Hampshire, Romney’s long-standing front-runner status in that state makes him vulnerable to the kind of less-than-expected, Pyrrhic victory that unraveled the campaign of Democrat Ed Muskie (another New Hampshire neighbor) back in 1972. Indeed, if Jon Huntsman somehow gets traction among independents in the Granite State, the state primary could begin to resemble its 2010 Republican Senate primary, when long-time frontrunner Kelly Ayotte nearly succumbed to a left-right squeeze from wealthy centrist Bill Binnie and social conservative Ovide Lamontagne.

And even if Romney wins New Hampshire decisively, T-Paw has some hidden strengths when the contest moves south. Pawlenty has slavishly pandered to the litmus-test demands of Palmetto State kingpin Jim DeMint and celebrity governor Nikki Haley, who shares a pollster with Pawlenty and is rumored to be in his camp.