DES MOINES, IOWA -- This could have been Tim Pawlenty's moment. With many Republicans writing off Rick Perry, worried Herman Cain can't last, and perpetually dissatisfied with Mitt Romney, the former Minnesota governor might have gotten another look, had he stayed in the race. Given all the changes that have taken place in the GOP presidential contest, who knows? Pawlenty might have been a serious contender by now.
Instead, Pawlenty is at home, having quit immediately after finishing third in the Aug. 13 Ames, Iowa, Republican straw poll. He has endorsed Romney -- in what seemed a not-terribly-enthusiastic gesture -- and he has publicly mused that maybe he got out too early. Indeed, there must be moments when Pawlenty kicks himself for bailing out of a race that proved much more volatile than anyone thought.
Pawlenty has said as much. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio a few weeks ago, he was asked whether he regretted quitting when he did.
"If we would have known then what we know now, would we have made some different decisions?" he replied. "Sure we would have, and I regret not making different decisions."
It seems like a million years ago, but Pawlenty surrendered when it appeared that Rep. Michele Bachmann, having just won the straw poll, would be a major force in Iowa. That, along with the much-anticipated entry of Texas Gov. Rick Perry into the race, appeared to make it impossible for the cash-strapped Pawlenty to establish himself as the main opponent to front-runner Mitt Romney. So Pawlenty bailed.
"It made a lot of sense at the time," says a Pawlenty campaign insider. "You looked at Romney, who was strong, and you looked at Bachmann, who was likely to win Iowa, and you looked at Perry, who was going to fill the anti-Romney space, and there wasn't enough room for Pawlenty." But then it all changed. "I don't think anybody at the time could have predicted how quickly both Bachmann and Perry would collapse," the insider says.
There's no doubt Pawlenty didn't excite voters in the early states. Put it more bluntly: He was dull. But given what we've learned about his competitors since then, would that be so bad in today's race? It seems safe to say that if Pawlenty had stayed in the running long enough, and as troubles developed in rival campaigns, voters might have looked at one another and said, "Now, why was it we didn't like Tim Pawlenty?" Dullness probably doesn't top their list of concerns right now.