Image: Tim Pawlenty
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks during a town hall meeting at his campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, Thursday, July 7, 2011.
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updated 7/8/2011 4:45:01 PM ET 2011-07-08T20:45:01

Trailing in polls and low on cash, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is betting the future of his presidential campaign on Iowa, where a late summer test vote could make or break him.

"We look to the Ames straw poll as a chance to show improvement," Pawlenty said in an interview this week, acknowledging his lagging fortunes as he opened a 15-day Iowa campaign stretch a month before the state popularity contest that's often a launch pad or cemetery for White House hopefuls. "We have to show some reasonable improvement at the straw poll, and then we've got to be in a position to win, or come close to it, in the caucuses."

The Iowa Republican Party's Aug. 13 straw poll has become Pawlenty's sole focus six months before the state's leadoff presidential caucuses, and for good reason.

By traditional measures, the low-key Midwesterner has little to show for his efforts to raise his profile and build a winning campaign since he first visited politically important Iowa in November 2009. He has the largest staff of any candidate for Iowa's caucuses but registered support from just 6 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers in a recent Des Moines Register poll.

Video: Chuck’s First Read (on this page)

He acknowledged in the interview that this week begins a critical test for him in Iowa, where he's supplementing his two-week visit with a new television ad and mailbox brochures all aimed at building support for the straw poll.

"You can't really have an impact until you have a sustained concerted series of campaign activities, backed up by mail and media and that's what we're doing now," he said.

But the pivotal month has not gotten off to a smooth start.

On Tuesday, Pawlenty's campaign sought to grab headlines with the news that Sarah Huckabee, the daughter of the failed presidential contender and 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee, had signed on as an adviser. But that news was buried by a Florida jury's innocent verdict in the trial of accused killer Casey Anthony.

Hours later, the University of New Hampshire released its latest poll of likely Republican primary voters. It showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 35 percent of support in the first-in-the-nation primary state and Pawlenty with just 3 percent.

Video: Bad romance: T-Paw and Lady Gaga (on this page)

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And by Wednesday, Pawlenty found himself having to denounce a top adviser's comment that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's early rise in Iowa was due in part to her "sex appeal." He had wanted to spend his first day of a sustained Iowa campaign stretch introducing a message stressing his record handling serious issues.

He hopes to right his campaign on Sunday in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Pawlenty, a two-term Republican governor of a Democratic-leaning state who was on 2008 GOP nominee John McCain's short-list for the vice presidential slot, has spent the past year and a half working to establish himself as a top-tier candidate. He hired a staff of veteran presidential campaign operatives. He raised millions in support of other candidates. And he gave $2 million in 2010 to local politicians in early primary voting states, hoping to earn chits for his presidential run.

So far, he has little to show for it.

Last week, Pawlenty said he raised $4.2 million over the past three months, with only some of it available to him if he wins the nomination. It's a paltry sum compared to Romney, the GOP front-runner who brought in more than $18 million, all of it for the primary.

And last month, he rolled out an economic policy at the University of Chicago only to be ridiculed by some from both parties for proposals critics said could not be taken seriously as a governing plan.

Among those critics was the liberal Center for American Progress, which said Pawlenty's plan would cost $7.8 trillion over a decade.

Video: Pawlenty aide apologizes for Bachmann comments (on this page)

Pawlenty found himself on the defensive over the plan the following week during a debate in which his own performance was widely panned.

Pawlenty had laid the groundwork in a news interview to assail Romney over the Massachusetts' health care law that was a model for President Barack Obama's nationwide one that conservatives despise. But Pawlenty hesitated to attack Romney during the debate, feeding into criticism that Pawlenty isn't tough enough to be the nominee.

He later acknowledged a misstep, saying: "I should have been much more clear during the debate."

The laid-back, soft-spoken Midwesterner also has been dogged by voter concerns that he isn't gung-ho enough to take on Obama.

"The loudest guy or woman in the bar usually isn't the toughest. They are usually just the loudest," Pawlenty said during a question-and-answer session in Urbandale on Thursday when Republican Bill Campbell told the candidate he wished he would come across with more passion. "You don't have to be a jerk to be strong. You can be nice and strong."

Campbell, a retired postal worker, wasn't entirely sold.

Video: Pawlenty struggles to break from GOP field (on this page)

"He's got so much substance, executive experience and political ability," Campbell said after the event. "He needs to show the inner-strength he has. He just comes across as too nice."

Still, Campbell said he was leaning toward supporting Pawlenty.

Pawlenty hoped to convince others to do the same in appearances across Iowa, where the Register poll showed Romney and Bachmann leading the pack.

He acknowledged that the straw poll was pivotal to boosting his standing but he argued that he doesn't have to win it to show momentum.

It has reshaped previous Republican contests.

Four years ago, Huckabee used a surprising second-place in the straw poll to catapult his second-tier candidacy into the headlines while former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was all but forced to abandon his bid after a poor showing. In 2000, a straw poll victory solidified as national front-runner then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush while ushering from the campaign former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Pawlenty is keenly aware of the stakes, and hopes to emerge as the former not the latter.

His candidacy may just depend on it.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Chuck’s First Read

  1. Closed captioning of: Chuck’s First Read

    >>> let's get to my first read of the morning, the debt talks. negotiations over the debt ceiling are in a critical 72-hour period. in order to avoid a scenario from april where a government shutdown was averted only in the final hours, the president and lawmakers are hoping to agree on a big deal and in these next two days are about both parties doing temperature taking and vote counting. yesterday the president put two plans on the table. this $4 trillion grand bargain he is now pushing for, which would include comprehensive tax reform and some serious changes to entitlement programs like medicare and medicaid and maybe even social security , and then the $2.5 trillion plan, which is sort of the backup plan with the biden guys were talking about. the president announced congressional leaders will reconvene at the white house sunday.

    >> at that point, the parties will at least know where each other's bottom lines are and will hopefully be in a position to then start engaging in the hard bargaining that's necessary to get a deal done. i want to emphasize that nothing is agreed to until everything's agreed to, and the parties are still far apart on a wide range of issues.

    >> republicans were strikingly silent after the meeting, a positive sign for those looking to see if a big deal can happen. other than the president, the most aggressive advocate of the $4 trillion plan is house speaker john boehner . in fact, boehner pitched the big deal to senate republicans yesterday. boehner , not mcconnell. and it was behind closed doors . roy blunt who served in the house of leadership under boehner for three years, he handicapped the deal. he's now a senator from missouri missouri.

    >> i have probably been in at least hundreds of meetings -- i don't know if i'd get to thousands -- with speaker boehner before he was speaker. he is always an optimistic man and he was optimistic today. there's no deal yet. nobody knows what the deal is. we'll see how genuine everybody is in trying to get there. but i think if they do get there they'll get there pretty quickly or they won't get there.

    >> look, all of this is about everybody dealing with their own bases. we know the president's meeting with nancy pelosi today at the bhiet house and we know speaker boehner is talking to not just senate republicans but republicans in his own conference. now, boehner is up against some tough math. there are 240 republicans in the house . boehner lost 59 of them on the continuing resolution, the last bargain if you will, i want very grand, on this year's budge e. 63 republicans are members of the tea party caucus alone. right now, according to some folks on the hill that i've talked to, there are about 50 hard nos on the debt limit. think people like michele bachmann .

    >> we can't keep spending money that we don't have. that's why i fought against the wasteful bailout, against the stimulus. i will not vote to increase the debt ceiling.

    >> there are potentially another 25 soft nos, which would get them up to about 75 nos. and that brings the number of democrats needed closer to 50. now, boehner , for his own politics in his conference, he would like to keep his losses under 75 inside his own party. now, one of the more possess mess tick parts of yesterday's meeting was the fact that eric cantor , the number two to boehner , was more skeptical about this idea that the big deal , the grand bargain, which would include major tax reform and basically some tax increase -- increased tax reven reven revenues, getting rid of loopholes, kantor was expressing skepticism about getting it through the house , not necessarily skeptical in trying to do a big plan but on the numbers himselves. he's of course bun one of the guys counting votes. the white house is trying to soothe democrats frantically pushing back that reports on social security are on the debt ceiling table. yesterday he had a hard time not tripping all over that message. watch.

    >> the president specifically said it should not be included and now you guys are acknowledging it's included.

    >> the president has said since january that he is willing and eager to have discussions about social security --

    >> but not -- but he always -- he was specific to say not connected to this stuff.

    >> he has always said that it is not connected to the short and medium-term deficit problems we face as a nation. it doesn't mean he's not willing to talk about as a separate matter. the president's position has not changed at all since january. he has also said that anybody that wants to -- [ inaudible ]

    >> i'm not going to characterize what would be in or out of a deal.

    >> in the next hour, the president meets with house democratic leader nancy pelosi in the oval osts, who is not exactly enthusiastic about the developing plan. both party lose a weapon if this deal goes through, republicans lose the threat of tax hikes and ballooning deficit and spending and democrats lose the campaign weapon of medicare . when asked recently how house democrats win bokback the house , pelosi had a three-word mantra, medicare medicare medicare . new numbers we've crunched from our poll archives show why. in our merged data for polls all of our polls conducted in the first half of this year, about 4800 total interviews, republicans we have found are losing ground among seniors. last year in our polling democrats had just a two-point edge in party identification . among voters 65 and older, meaning 42% of seniors call themselves democrats and 40% identified themselves as republicans . this year that advantage for democrats has jumped nine points, 44% of seniors now call themselves democrats , only 35% of them call themselves republicans . and something similar is happening in the midwest. one of the oerld regiolder regions. democrats have an 11-point advantage beating republicans 41-31. back in 2010 that was just a few points. that is where control of the house will happen.

    >>> finally, the "new york times" goes there. tim pawlenty is waking up to this headline. will the republican races first in be the first out? ouch. look, it's what everybody has been chattering about about paw lenty, disappointing fund raising numbers, debate performance, the fact michele bachmann is stealing all his thunder. but to put it in their terms even will make fund raising that much harder. paw lenty comes through a new video this morning. in the hawkeye state this morning, the news is that as paw lenty told the des moines register his poll numbers in the state are lagging because this week is the first time i've campaigned in earnest in iowa. okay. meanwhile, acting the front-runn front-runner, mitt romney met with british prime minister yesterday at 10 downing street during his fund raising trip to the uk. romney tweeted this picture of the two together. we'll see how that plays with some republicans that were concerned when mitt romney talked about social security protection in new hampshire.

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