Mitt Romney’s decision not to compete in presidential straw polls ahead of next year’s Republican primaries appears likely to have the most impact on Tim Pawlenty.
But what’s less certain is whether Pawlenty is a beneficiary, victim or some combination of both as a result of the GOP frontrunner’s decision to not compete in closely watched but non-binding polls in Iowa, Michigan and Florida.
Lagging in early polls, the straw polls present an opportunity for the former Minnesota governor to cement his status as the chief establishment alternative to Romney. Scoring a decisive win first at Ames in August and then at Florida’s Presidency V in September would offer Pawlenty significant press attention — and a probable bump in the polls and for his fundraising.
As Mike Huckabee demonstrated four years ago with his surprise second-place Ames showing and subsequent caucus win, the Iowa poll alone can vault a candidate into contention.
“One of these candidates is going to have the entire political world focused on them for a week and that’s worth millions of dollars in free media,” said veteran Iowa Republican strategist Steve Grubbs. “And Pawlenty could be the guy who grabs that.”
“It gives him some free, open-field running,” added Bob Haus, another Hawkeye State GOP consultant, of what Romney’s absence means for Pawlenty. But there is peril as well as opportunity for the Minnesotan. Without Romney contesting them, he has no giant to slay. And should Pawlenty compete aggressively in them only to lose to one of the more ideological candidates, it would raise serious questions about whether he’s a serious player.