T-Paw dropping out; Update: State GOP chair to ask Pawlenty to run for Senate

News began breaking on Sunday morning before most folks had finished their coffee or had even woken up on the left coast. Some fourteen hours after finishing a relatively distant third place to Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul in the Ames straw poll, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is ending his quest for the presidency.

Pawlenty told supporters on a conference call Sunday morning that he would announce on ABC’s “This Week” that he was ending his campaign after a disappointing finish in the Iowa straw poll on Saturday.

The poll was a test of organizational strength and popularity in the state whose caucuses lead off the GOP nomination fight.

Pawlenty had struggled to gain traction in Iowa, a state he had said he must win, after laying the groundwork for a campaign for nearly two years.

I won’t attempt to hide my disappointment since, as most of you know, I was quite a fan of T-Paw and had hoped he would do well. But in the end, there have likely been too many doses of reality being delivered to his campaign. As Ed and Tina already pointed out, while some people brush off the importance of a straw poll like the one in Ames, this was more than just a test of how many free tickets and pulled pork sandwiches one can hand out. It’s also a test of how well you can build your organizational structure and what kind of image you can project.

T-Paw had poured almost all of his remaining campaign funds into this effort and worked the ground game for well over a year, yet he still came up far, far short. It was going to be difficult at best to go back to potential donors after this and convince them to flush more money into the effort. But what Governor Pawlenty really never seemed to overcome was the media branded image that he was simply, “too nice.” He was the vanilla candidate who everyone liked, but they simply didn’t see that “fire in the belly” that everyone talked about. Even his scrappy verbal brawl with Michele Bachmann on Thursday night was too little, too late.

He was also regularly shoved to the back of the pack every time a new “flavor of the month” candidate entered the race and spiked in the poll numbers. This was doubtless compounded with the addition of a new, seriously high voltage competitor entering the race this weekend in the person of Rick Perry.

So where does he go from here? It’s difficult to imagine the final nominee picking him for the veep slot, but anything is possible. There is also the potential for a future Senate run where he might fare quite well, though he has brushed that thought off in the past.

Sorry to see you go, Governor, but I understand the decision. Best of luck.

Update (Ed): Steve Eggleston joked on Twitter that I should be put on “suicide watch,” but this outcome was obvious, if sooner than I expected.  Pawlenty was a very good governor in Minnesota with a long record of accomplishment, and would have made a good President, perhaps even better than good.  However, in order to be a good President, you have to first get yourself elected, and Pawlenty never got that kind of traction.

Pawlenty is young enough to try again in the future, but he will need something to do in between.  He can’t stay retired for four or eight years and then expect to come back and run for President again.  The obvious option here is a challenge to Senator Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota next year.  Klobuchar won big in the wave of 2006, swamping out Mark Kennedy by over 20 points to win her first term.  She’s smart and genuinely likeable, and so far hasn’t built an extreme record in her voting, although it’s certainly mainstream Democratic, but also hasn’t done much to distinguish herself.

Other Republicans are already gearing up to take her on, but given Klobuchar’s likeability and standing (the Klobuchars have been in Minnesota politics for a long time), it would take a Republican with high standing to make it a tough race.  Pawlenty is the last Republican to win a state-wide race in Minnesota, and knows how to fundraise and campaign.  Don’t be surprised if he decides to refocus his attention to Minnesota and make a run for Capitol Hill rather than the White House.  Pawlenty hasn’t always been the darling of the state Republican party, but expect them to woo Pawlenty for the bid.

Update (Ed): Gary Gross heard MN GOP chair Tony Sutton’s interview on WCCO this morning:

What was a busy news morning for Minnesota politics just got hectic. Appearing on Esme Murphy’s program on WCCO-TV this morning, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said that he will approach Gov. Pawlenty to see if he’s willing to run against Amy Klobuchar. …

A Pawlenty-Klobuchar match-up would instantly jump to being the most watched Senate race in the nation for 2012. With Sen. Klobuchar’s vulnerabilities and Gov. Pawlenty’s fundraising abilities, plus his substantial policy chops, Sen. Klobuchar’s best bet is to pray Gov. Pawlenty doesn’t jump into the race.

Pawlenty has the best statewide name recognition in the GOP, and a good record of accomplishment as governor.  It makes sense for both the state party and for Pawlenty, but he’s got plenty of time to decide.