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Pawlenty in winter, Perry in bloom

“I think we know with reasonable certainty that standing up there on the west front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2013 will be one of three people: Obama, [Tim] Pawlenty and [Mitch] Daniels. I think that’s it.”

George Will, May 15, 2011, on ABC’s “This Week”

(AMES, Iowa) — Those of us in the projection business point out misfired predictions at our peril, because anyone in this business is going to get a whole lot wrong. And hey, Will can still be right: President Barack Obama may very well be sworn in for a second term in January 2013.

But Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels? Errr…

Daniels never got in, and Pawlenty is now out. The ex-Minnesota governor had a dreadful finish at the Iowa Straw Poll here Saturday. While his third-place finish was not necessarily surprising, the fact that his finish (2,293 votes) was closer to Thaddeus McCotter (35 votes) than second-place finisher Ron Paul (4,671) created a situation where Pawlenty could not continue on. So he won’t, and he deserves credit for bowing to reality.

George Will surely was not the only pundit to set high expectations for Pawlenty. At the Crystal Ball, we had him near the top of our presidential rankings for a time before downgrading him recently. Pawlenty was the successful governor of a Democratic-leaning state, and he had, many thought, appeal to the varied wings of the Republican party, particularly religious and economic conservatives. On paper, he looked the part of a top presidential contender.

But looking the part isn’t enough – a potential president has to play it too, and that means demonstrating that he or she can appeal to actual votes. That’s why the straw poll was, despite its many detractors, ultimately a useful exercise: It gave actual voters the opportunity to pick the candidate they preferred, not the one that kinda sorta looked like the one they might prefer. Now, granted, the straw poll isn’t really a “real” election: Participants have to pay $30 to vote, or be given a ticket by one of the campaigns, and it’s held in a single location in the state (the campus of Iowa State University) with a six-hour voting window.

But it was an election nonetheless. Bad polling wasn’t going to force Pawlenty out; a bad election result, even in a dubious election, was a different matter. He needed a spark to get his fundraising going, and he didn’t get it.

The Straw Poll, combined with another event Saturday – Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign announcement in South Carolina – clarifies the presidential contest. Mitt Romney, Perry and Michele Bachmann, the winner of the Straw Poll, stand out from the rest.

Unfortunately for Bachmann, she lost for winning. She finished first with 28.6% of the votes cast, less than a percentage point over Ron Paul. Paul, who has deep support but whose Dennis Kucinich-esque foreign policy agenda is anathema to most Republicans, is not a credible candidate for the nomination. One gets the sense that Bachmann has hit her high-water mark.

She now faces a challenge in the first real presidential primary season event, the Iowa caucuses, as she tries to win over Iowa’s socially conservative Republican caucus-goers – in 2008, those voters were 60% evangelical or born-again, a fact that can’t be emphasized enough when discussing Iowa – against Perry. Romney also now has an opportunity to compete for Iowa – Perry, Bachmann and the rest of the field could play for the religious vote, while Romney could contend for the two in five caucus-goers who are less religious. Ron Paul will also be competing for these voters, which could make for some interesting battles between Paul and Romney in future debates. If Romney could somehow win Iowa and New Hampshire, he’d deal a hammer blow to the rest of the field, much like another Bay Stater, John Kerry, did in the 2004 Democratic nominating contest.

But Romney could also pass on Iowa, just like he passed on the straw poll after winning it four years ago.

Perry, whose candidacy is not even 48 hours old at this point, rightfully has jumped to the top tier of the presidential contenders. But whether he’s the next Ronald Reagan – or the next Tim Pawlenty – remains to be seen. He, like Pawlenty six months ago, is a good candidate on paper: appeals to social and economic conservatives, long-time governor of a major state, etc. But will voters actually like him? What will the press discover as it takes a closer look at him and the Lone Star State? We just don’t know at this point. One thing’s clear just from his announcement speech on Saturday: The man is certainly more Texan than George W. Bush.

Bush II ran as a compassionate conservative in 2000 and lost the national popular vote to Al Gore (although Bush won the Electoral College, of course). Can the undeniably harder-edged Perry follow Bush to the White House? What if Perry flops? Does someone else get in?

Had Perry competed in the Straw Poll, we might have a better sense as to the answers to these questions. But he didn’t, so we don’t.

So as tempting as it is to say that, come January 20, 2013, one of three men – Obama, Romney or Perry – will be sworn in at the western front of the Capitol, it might be wise to hold off on that prediction just yet.