Former two-term Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's campaign for the GOP presidential nomination was always expected to be launched, or extinguished, in next-door Iowa.
But with his once-promising prospects seemingly atrophied, and his first big test at the Iowa GOP presidential straw poll less than a month away, Pawlenty has embarked on an 18-city tour of the state this week to pump up his stuck-in-single-digit support.
He's also plowing about $200,000 into television advertising that will run through the Aug. 13 straw poll — the heftiest candidate buy in Iowa so far.
It's a big move for the amiable evangelical conservative who has been eclipsed in Iowa by a charismatic, base-rousing opponent: fellow Minnesotan and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, who has dominated recent Iowa polls.
And he's been buffeted by accounts characterizing his campaign as on a quick fade, like this headline in The New York Times: "Will Republican Race's First In Be the First Out?"
Just slow down, urges campaign spokesman Alex Conant.
"Michele Bachmann, according to the polls right now, is the front-runner in Iowa, and Gov. Pawlenty is the underdog," Conant says.
"We're comfortable with that," he said, "knowing that we have the time, the message, and the record to do better."
Make Or Break
In Iowa, some longtime Republicans say they see Pawlenty struggling mightily, but not out of the picture.
"I'm not ready to write him off," says Mike Mahaffey, a former state GOP chairman who has not decided whom he will support. "I think he can and will survive the straw poll."
"He is doing many of the things you should do here in Iowa," he says. "In the long run, his personality, bland as it might be, might be an antidote."
His style stands in sharp contrast to the incendiary Bachmann, founder of the House Tea Party caucus and a Fox News regular.
Just surviving the poll — part of a daylong party event, where bused-in supporters eat candidate-provided pork offerings and listen to music and speeches — appears to be the Pawlenty goal, too.
"I don't think we need to win the straw poll, but we need to show progress," Conant says. He defined "progress" as a better showing than the governor had in the Des Moines Register's late June Iowa Poll, in which he was the pick of just 6 percent of those surveyed.
He came in a distant sixth, behind leaders Mitt Romney, at 23 percent, and Bachman, 22 percent, and just ahead of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Romney is not competing in the straw poll, which could make Pawlenty's task easier.
To help achieve his decidedly modest progress goal, Pawlenty recently brought Sarah Huckabee Sanders onboard as an adviser. She's the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the ordained Baptist minister who came in a surprise second to Romney in the 2007 straw poll and went on to win the state's 2008 caucuses just a few months later.
The 2012 Iowa caucuses, the first presidential nominating contest in the nation, are scheduled for Feb. 6.
Could Organization Win It?
Hiring Huckabee Sanders. Doubling down on television ads. Heading out on an RV tour. Investing in on-the-ground staff.
Pawlenty, says Mary Kramer, a former Iowa Republican state senator from Clive, "is doing the right things."
"Between my husband and me, we've had four calls from his volunteers, people we know, who are trying to recruit us to the campaign," she says. "That's pretty impressive."
"He's also running pretty good radio ads about his experience," says Kramer, former ambassador to Barbados during the George W. Bush administration. "I wonder if that isn't resonating, if that isn't getting a little under ... [Bachmann's] skin."
Bachmann, she says, "is like a firecracker — I just wonder if it can be sustained."
Bachmann has been contending with the increased scrutiny that comes with a presidential effort that has caught early fire, including questions about whether her husband's counseling clinic offers controversial therapy to help gays and lesbians change sexual orientation.
She and Santorum are the only two candidates who signed an anti-same-sex-marriage pledge promoted by Bob Vander Plaats, who heads a conservative Christian group. The pledge originally included language that suggested black children born into slavery had a more stable home life than black children today.
Pawlenty touted his support for "traditional marriage," but he refused to sign the pledge.
"I prefer to choose my own words," he said in a statement.
Focus On Caucus
Both Kramer and Mahaffey, who predicts that Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul will be the top straw poll vote-getters, say they are less interested in the poll than in the sprint to the February caucuses.
"I don't know if the poll will have as much importance this year," Mahaffey says.
Romney's sitting it out; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman isn't participating; and the GOP field could still expand — before or after the Ames votes are counted. Rumors that Texas Gov. Rick Perry may enter the race abound.
Perry told the Des Moines Register that he's "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do, this is what America needs."
A Perry candidacy would seriously scramble the field, making the path for both Pawlenty and Bachmann less certain.
And Pawlenty's efforts to portray himself as an experienced union-busting, debt-ceiling-battling tough guy would face a stiffer test with Perry in the field. The state Pawlenty led until January was forced to shut down when legislators and the governor failed to reach a budget deal to bridge a $5 trillion deficit that accrued on his watch. Pawlenty embraced the shutdown, and the idling of 22,000 workers, as a necessary tactic.
Perry, another evangelical conservative, has presided over a state that added more than 200,000 jobs last year, though critics say many are minimum wage, and has an unemployment rate of 8 percent, compared with 6.6 percent in Minnesota and 9.2 percent nationally.
Bachmann ascendant? A potential Perry run?
Conant says the campaign strategy remains the same.
"Our strategy has never been dependent on who else may or may not run," Conant says. "The field has changed considerably over the past year. Our strategy has been the same — talk about the governor's record, and focus on the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire."
But if Iowa looks difficult for Pawlenty, a New Hampshire win, place or show for him is even more unlikely.
Polls in the Granite State, where the first 2012 presidential primary will be held about a week after Iowa's caucuses, show Romney leading, Bachmann surging, and Pawlenty tied for sixth place at 6 percent. And behind Rick Perry.