By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The clock is ticking for Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. He has one month to prove he can break out of the 2012 also-rans and emerge as a viable contender.
Republicans in Ames, Iowa, on August 13 conduct a straw poll of the party's presidential candidates. It is a key test of strength for White House hopefuls and sets the stage for the next six months of campaigning in Iowa, which in February holds the first 2012 nominating contest.
The hill is steep for Pawlenty. A Des Moines Register poll of Iowa Republicans last month had him at 6 percent.
Pawlenty must do well in the Iowa poll. Analysts know it, rival campaigns know it, and Pawlenty himself knows it.
"We need to show real progress in the straw poll," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. "We need to show improvement, and we're confident that we will."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Pawlenty was the first major contender to jump into the race for the Republican presidential nomination for the right to contest Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
He would seem to have the right credentials. He has executive experience as a two-term Minnesota governor. He is conservative yet was able to gain crossover support to win election in relatively liberal Minnesota.
He is considered the most mild-mannered, polite person in the Republican field in an election season when fiery Tea Party conservatives are demanding a street fighter.
"He could be one of the biggest victims of the straw poll," said long-time Iowa-watcher David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "That event has a history of knocking out candidates who on paper look good but can't seem to generate any electricity."
One of Pawlenty's biggest perceived stumbles was failing to take the fight face-to-face to front-runner Mitt Romney at a recent debate of Republican candidates.
The day before, in a television interview, he had attacked Romney for developing a healthcare plan for Massachusetts when he was governor that Democrats say was a model for Obama's U.S. healthcare overhaul, which Republicans want to repeal.
"He doesn't excite passion of the likely primary or caucus voter like he should," said Dick Bennett, pollster for the American Research Group.
Pawlenty is spending much of the next two weeks in Iowa trying to gain traction. He is talking up his record as governor and drawing a contrast, for example, with rival candidate Michelle Bachmann, who is also from Minnesota and serves as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bachmann is surging in the polls in Iowa and could very well win the straw poll.
Pawlenty thinks Bachmann talks a good game but has little to show for her time in Washington, unlike his tenure as Minnesota governor where he says he cut taxes and spending.
"Well, I like Congresswoman Bachmann. I've campaigned for her. I respect her, but her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent. It's non-existent," Pawlenty told NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday.
He is also taking shots at Romney.
"I don't think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of Obamacare and then continues to defend it," he said.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak thinks Pawlenty can turn it around, but that he needs to finish near the top in the Ames straw poll.
He thinks Romney, Pawlenty or Texas Governor Rick Perry are the only three Republicans with a chance to actually win the party's nomination. Perry is still debating whether to jump into the race.
"Is he underperforming a bit right now? Yes. But it's not a bad thing to have a bad month now rather than later," Mackowiak said.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)