How can this happen? How can a successful governor hire a group of really smart people, spend more than a year, and who-knows-how-many millions of dollars, meeting with potential and actual supporters, and elite members of the media in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., only to come to a grinding halt in a place called Ames, Iowa?
The threshold problem with the presidential campaign of Gov. Tim Pawlenty was: From the very, well, threshold there was no clear theory for the campaign. It never occurred to me that Pawlenty was going to be able to "nice" his way into the Oval Office.
Most people along the trail liked him. What's not to like? Many people in and around politics confuse a candidate's likability with his or her electability.
When someone mentions that so-and-so is much more likable than someone else I always respond with the same two words: Richard Nixon. Nobody liked Nixon. Not even, maybe, his wife. Yet, he won twice. Three times if you buy into the conspiracy theory that the Dems stole Texas (via Lyndon Johnson) and/or Illinois (Joe Kennedy & the Chicago mob) in the election of 1960.
One of Pawlenty's senior staffers told me that Pawlenty just couldn't get any traction with an angry electorate -- especially in the face of a Bachmann campaign which has made its mark by selling her as the angriest candidate on the scene.
Speaking of Bachmann, one of her senior staffers told me that he felt like they'd just won the play-in game for the NCAA basketball tournament. Now they get to compete in the "big dance."
Like that tournament, you have to win on Thursday to play on Saturday. You have to win on Saturday to get to the next round. Bachmann won in the debate here Thursday night; she won again yesterday so she gets to go on.
Pawlenty's campaign might have effectively ended, not here in Ames, but on the debate stage in New Hampshire when he refused to engage Mitt Romney on what he had previously called Oromney-care -- the Massachusetts health care law Romney signed as Governor.
With nothing on the schedule to allow him to "angry up," after that, Republicans were left with the impression that what had been known as "Minnesota Nice" might really be "Minnesota Wimp."
In the debate here, Pawlenty and Bachmann went toe-to-toe on the contents of a bill in the Minnesota House of Representatives to raise taxes on cigarettes and, despite a good line (that fighting and losing isn't leadership), Bachmann stuck to the pillars of her talking points and ended up on winning end of the debate-within-the-debate.
As I wrote in this weekend's "Mullings" (which you can read here) it's all about expectations. Pawlenty raised the expectation bar by letting it be known he was going all in here. That was not a bad strategic approach. It let voters here know he was serious about the Hawkeye State in stark contrast to Romney who has been on-again-off-again about campaigning here, and Huntsman whom many Iowans think couldn't find Iowa on a map - of Iowa.
It was no secret that the Pawlenty campaign was running (or had run) out of funds and desperately needed a good showing here to restart the money machine. His distant third place finish was an unspinnable result and so he announced on Sunday morning that he was dropping out.
For the remaining campaigns - real like Perry, Romney and Huntsman - and surreal like Palin, there is some top notch political talent available today that wasn't available yesterday. Why would a going campaign hire a staffer from a campaign that failed? Several reasons.
First, in the end, there will be only one candidate and that candidate will be able to pick and choose who to add to his or her staff from the other campaigns. As an example, Ari Fleischer began the 2000 cycle as the spokesman for the Presidential campaign of Elizabeth Dole. He ended the cycle being the spokesman for President George W. Bush.
Second, there are more (to use a football term) skill positions to be filled than there are skilled players to fill them. As the campaigns begin planning their tactics and strategies beyond Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, into places as diverse as Florida and Nevada through the primary and caucus season nearly a year down the road, they will need extra hands to help direct and manage that increasingly complex political calculus.
Third, Washington is a one-industry town and everyone pretty much knows everyone else. Professional political people rarely get trapped into blood feuds with one another for just this reason. There is every chance that you will end up on the same side of an issue, working for the same candidate, or working in the same Administration.
Pawlenty is gone from this race but the race will go on.
On the Secret Decoder Ring today: More fotos from the Straw Poll on the campus of Iowa State University.