Is the media vastly overrating Pawlenty's chances? 

Most political observers, myself included, have been operating more or less under the following assumption: that Tim Pawlenty is a top tier GOP presidential candidate along with Mitt Romney, and that the rest of the field is comprised of a bunch of niche candidates who aren't actually viable. The problem is, there is scant evidence to support this view of Pawlenty.

The reasons for Pawlenty's presumed strength are obvious -- he's a two-term blue state Republican governor who has a compelling Horatio Alger-style biography of rising from humble beginnings, and, while he's taken unconservative positions in the past, no single issue is as damaging to him as the Massachusetts health care law is to Romney. And being from neighboring Minnesota and combining working class roots with his ties to the evangelical community would seem to hit the sweet spot with Iowans. Ultimately, the case for Pawlenty is that he's viable on paper and is somebody who most Republicans can live with, even though he may not be their ideal choice.

While this may by a reasonable hypothesis, the reality is that there is currently no actual data to support it. As the American Spectator's Jim Antle noted recently in a series of posts, Pawlenty's polling numbers are mired in the single digits despite months of campaigning and there's a real risk that he'll be crowded out by other candidates vying for conservative voters, while Romney ekes through a victory by cobbling together a coalition of moderates and some conservatives.

Normally I wouldn't pay much attention to early polls given the name recognition issue and the fact that most Americans aren't yet paying close attention to the 2012 presidential race. But what should be alarming to the Pawlenty folks is that we've now seen a number of polls in which former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain has been ahead of Pawlenty, despite his own lack of name recognition. Particularly troubling is the most recent poll to come out of Iowa from Public Policy Polling (PDF). Granted, it's from a Democratic firm. But that said,  Iowa is supposed to be Pawlenty's strong state and yet he was stuck in sixth place at 10 percent in the PPP poll, with or without Sarah Palin in the race.

Iowa's influential Ames Straw poll is just over two months away. Cain seems to be gaining some traction in Iowa, and he's endorsed the Fair Tax -- and remember, Fair Tax supporters played a big role in Mike Huckabee's strong showing in the 2007 Ames poll.   Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., has a more professional organization this time around and has won a number of early straw polls, driven by his core group of dedicated supporters. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., appears ready to jump into the race. And Romney, though he may not compete as hard in Iowa this time, still has organization there from his last run, not to mention plenty of money at his disposal. There's a real risk that Pawlenty could have a lousy finish in the Ames Straw poll, and find it difficult to gain steam in Iowa afterwards. And if he doesn't come out of Iowa with a strong showing in the actual caucus, it's hard to see him going far in the rest of the country.

To be clear, I'm not predicting this outcome, or suggesting that Pawenty doesn't have a chance. It's still early, and all of the things pundits have been assuming about Pawlenty's strengths could turn out to be correct. All I'm saying is that we've yet to see actual evidence of Pawlenty's strength, and it's quite possible that the assumption that he's a top tier candidate could prove wildy off base.

UPDATE: In better news for Pawlenty, this PPP national poll has him gaining ground.

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Philip Klein

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