DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Long before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, Tim Pawlenty was already out of the race for president. Yet his short-lived campaign lives on, casting a shadow over the Republicans now wooing voters in the state that kicks off the White House contest.
Four years after Pawlenty staked his presidential bid on Iowa's traditional summer straw poll, several top Republicans plan to skip the event. Mindful of the outsized resources the former Minnesota governor sank into Iowa, some campaigns aim to run leaner organizations in the state.
And they're also stockpiling money in super PACs, which could help them stay afloat should they suffer a misstep or strategic blunder as Pawlenty did in the first-to-vote state.
"You don't have to spend a ton of dough in the modest-sized state of Iowa to have a result that keeps you going," Pawlenty said in an interview with The Associated Press in which he reflected on his own missteps and offered advice for those seeking to avoid a similar fate.
Friendly and mild-mannered, Pawlenty is well-liked by fellow Republicans. But in Iowa, GOP political operatives now whisper his name as a way to discredit their opponents — and scramble to deflect any comparisons to their own candidate.
One of the first Republicans to make clear his plans to run in 2012, Pawlenty never gained the traction in Iowa or nationally that his solid resume and record suggested he could. After a poor performance in an early debate, he zeroed in on the Iowa GOP's summer straw poll as the way to save his campaign.
Straw polls measure nothing but the sentiments of those who show up, and Iowa's was a true circus in 2012. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann spent $2 million on the event, going so far as to hire country singer Randy Travis to entertain her supporters. Eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney didn't take part, and Pawlenty finished a distant third behind Bachmann and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
The morning after the straw poll, Pawlenty ended his campaign.
Few top 2016 contenders are eager to set themselves up for that kind of embarrassment. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, has joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in saying he'll stay away.
"The gig is up on it," Pawlenty said. "Everybody should just chill out about its significance."
Bush, Rubio and Huckabee all say they plan to compete in the caucuses. Some Iowa Republicans question how aggressively Bush will run in a state where his more moderate positions on immigration and education could be a liability. Iowa operatives also say they're waiting for Rubio to make more appearances in Iowa. Some note that he's yet to hire a state director, a key post in a place where detailed knowledge of the caucus process and Iowa's 99 counties is a coveted commodity.
In announcing Rubio's decision to forgo the straw poll, his communications director, Alex Conant, a veteran of Pawlenty's 2012 White House run, emphasized the senator planned to run a "lean campaign."
Some straw poll supporters fear they're watching the demise of an event that has been a tradition since 1979 and a big moneymaker for the state party.
"What I don't see being debated enough or discussed enough is the risk inherent in not participating," said former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. "In a field as crowded as we have, non-participation means that you are potentially feeding the opportunity for another campaign to fill the vacuum."
That's part of the decision facing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose advisers say he won't announce his straw poll plans until he announces his overall 2016 plans in early summer.
Walker has already had to swat away Pawlenty comparisons, made based only on the fact both are Midwestern governors with blue-collar backgrounds. Given his strength in early Iowa polls, he risks failing to meet expectations if he competes in the straw poll but loses to weaker candidates.
But even if Walker or another top-tier candidate suffers an embarrassing straw poll defeat, it's unclear whether it would have the kind of debilitating effect it had on Pawlenty. He woke up the next morning suddenly unable to raise money to keep his campaign afloat.
With donors able to contribute unlimited cash to super PACs, candidates have a way to stockpile money with independent groups that can run ads and supplement campaign activities. One wealthy benefactor might be enough to sustain a candidate through a rough patch.
Super PACs were legal when Pawlenty ran in 2012, but largely untested. Pawlenty recalled a conversation with Romney as both were weighing campaigns in which the eventual 2012 Republican nominee espoused the importance of the big money groups.
"I remember thinking I didn't even know what a super PAC was," Pawlenty said.
The $5 million Pawlenty raised for his campaign looks quaint compared with the staggering figures expected in 2016. Bush, among the most aggressive fundraisers, is expected to pull in $100 million for his super PAC by the time he announces his campaign next week.
Pawlenty, who has left politics and is now the CEO of a financial services lobbying firm in Washington, says he regrets many of the decisions he made in Iowa four years ago. He laughs off questions about whether his legacy will be the death of the Iowa straw poll, but says his experience may have been the breaking point for a change that was years in the making.
"Maybe my campaign was the capstone," he said.
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