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.
As for gaffes, Pawlenty's big mistake -- again, this seems like something from a bygone era -- was that he failed to back up his charge that Romney's health plan in Massachusetts was the equivalent of "Obamneycare." Pawlenty coined the word during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" on June 12 and then backed off at a GOP debate the next day when he had the chance to criticize Romney face-to-face. That was thought to be a critical error at the time. But given everything that has happened since, it doesn't seem like a capital offense today.
But suppose Pawlenty had stayed in. Would it have mattered? A recent Des Moines Register poll found that just 5 percent of respondents said they would support Pawlenty if he were still running. Of course, he's been out of the picture since August. Had he been campaigning steadily since then, while other candidates faltered, the picture might be different.
Random chats with Iowa voters suggest Pawlenty would have earned a second chance. "Absolutely," said one woman at a Rick Santorum event in Fairfield, Iowa, when asked whether she would consider Pawlenty if he were still running. "I met him, and he had the best conservative record. He's a little dry, but I thought that he was a great candidate."
"Definitely," said another woman. "I liked what he had to say. I was shocked when he dropped out. I thought it was too soon."
It's that kind of opinion that drives some Pawlenty associates nuts. "If Newt Gingrich is getting a second look, Pawlenty certainly would have, too," says a second insider. "He would be in contention today."
But he's not. After his I-regret-it remarks on public radio, Pawlenty has stopped talking about what might have been and has turned into an effective advocate for Romney. But just because he's not talking about it doesn't mean he's not thinking about it. Given all that's happened, how could he not?