Tim Pawlenty's new ad, "American Comeback," recalls the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.
"You face an opponent experts say can't be beat," he says in the ad. "You fight. You bleed. You prevail. Our country's down, but we're not out ... ." Pawlenty could be talking about his own presidential campaign.
So far back in the presidential pack that he's been dropped from at least one general election poll and is scraping the bottom of another, Pawlenty has thrown himself almost full-time into Iowa, where he's in a battle for survival against fellow Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann. The Sixth District congresswoman is now widely viewed as the favorite to win next month's critical Ames straw poll, a dress rehearsal for the February 2012 Iowa caucuses.
Adding to Pawlenty's headaches on Thursday, ABC challenged his use of the network's footage of the historic hockey game. The ad is part of a major campaign buy on Iowa airwaves. While Pawlenty combats Bachmann's obvious advantage in media attention and buzz, he is doubling down on his paint-by-numbers strategy of organizational work and hustle, lining up endorsements one by one. He is conspicuously offering to buy the tickets and provide rides for all potential straw poll voters to and from the big event in Ames on Aug. 13.
"We'll get you there, we'll get you fed, and we'll get you home at a time that's convenient for you," he told a town hall gathering at the Iowa Farm Bureau in West Des Moines Wednesday night.
Iowans are accustomed to being heavily wooed at such events, and many expect candidates to buy their $30 tickets, which constitute a major fundraiser for the state Republican Party.
Pawlenty aides say their superior organizing will trump their Minnesota rival's admittedly higher excitement quotient.
"A lot of Iowans don't decide as early as we'd like them to," said Pawlenty aide Sarah Huckabee, daughter of 2008 Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee. "They play their hands a little closer to the chest. As we get closer to the straw poll you will see a lot more of that enthusiasm from our people."
To Sarah Huckabee, the past could be prelude. "If you look back four years ago, my dad was where Governor Pawlenty is right now," she said. "He went on to do very well in the straw poll and ended up winning the Iowa caucus."
Others, however, note that straw polls and caucuses are the province of highly motivated activists. That would seem to tip the advantage to Bachmann and complicate Pawlenty's prospects of recovering his former top-tier status.
Shrugging off a growing national media narrative that he's all but cooked, Pawlenty is criss-crossing Iowa for the next three weeks in a rented RV on what he has dubbed the "Road to Results."
Earlier this week, the road led down a dirt track to the back-yard gun range of National Rifle Association instructor Jim Egeland, outside Madrid (pronounced MAA-drid in Iowa). There was no crowd, but it gave the ex-governor a chance to fire a Glock 9 millimeter semi-automatic pistol in front of a few reporters and reaffirm his stand for gun rights.
"He's incredibly committed," said his brother Dan Pawlenty, who has joined him on a trek where he says the candidate sometimes goes days without sleep.
Pawlenty's doggedness has won him admirers in Iowa's top political ranks. "I wouldn't write him off," said U.S. Rep. Steve King, a close ally of Bachmann. "He's worked hard, and he's been everywhere. He's been there first and he's been there persistently."
Bachmann has surged to first place in some Iowa polls, but experts in Iowa politics say that winning the Ames straw poll is less about star power or results than getting specific people to a specific place at a specific time.
"The straw poll is just like the caucuses -- both are organizational tests," said GOP activist Craig Robinson, editor of the influential Iowa Republican blog. "I would not dismiss candidates like Tim Pawlenty and [Pennsylvania Republican] Rick Santorum, who have quietly gone about organizing the state the way it has been done by a lot of campaigns in the past." Santorum announced earlier that he's moving his family to Iowa for the duration.
Robinson says there's a "huge difference" between Pawlenty's daily town hall meetings, where people can ask him questions, and Bachmann's campaign bus events, which frequently are limited to a short speech, then private chit-chat with supporters and well-wishers.
"Bachmann is really on an extended announcement tour, where she is getting a lot of media attention," Robinson said. "Pawlenty is letting people kick the tires."
It worked at the Farm Bureau gathering, where Des Moines math teacher Dave Keely said he was won over by Pawlenty's personal touch on a tax question. "He's down to earth," said Keely, who decided on the spot to cast a ballot for Pawlenty in Ames. "I like his integrity."
Although some analysts say Pawlenty has the campaign apparatus to win in Ames, others wonder if his standard conservative fare will stand out in a field of staunch conservatives.
"He's got tons of people working for him, and a lot of them are good friends of mine," said Des Moines attorney Jeff Courter, who is active in Republican circles. "But so much of the time caucus turnout and straw poll turnout is based on intensity of support, and I don't sense there is a big wave of Pawlenty supporters out there who are willing to walk through a wall for him."
In recent polls, Pawlenty continues to linger near the bottom, and his recent fundraising reports were considered subpar. Attention has shifted lately to whether larger-than-life Texas Gov. Rick Perry will enter the contest and upend the field in the weeks leading up to the straw poll.
Mindful of the difficult road ahead, Pawlenty makes it clear that he's not expecting any miracles.
"We need to move from the back of the pack to something closer to the front," he said in an interview at the end of a town hall meeting in Altoona.
Of the straw poll where he once expected to place near the top, Pawlenty now is tamping down any Olympian expectations.
"We don't need to win it, but we need to show some good progress," Pawlenty said. "The idea that we're done if we don't win the Ames straw poll is ridiculous. ... Our real goal is the Iowa caucuses."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.
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