Tim Pawlenty’s early exit from the race for the Republican presidential nomination was as much of a surprise to the Minnesota governor’s former adviser, Vin Weber, as it was to outside observers.
“I was surprised how quickly he left,” Weber said during a talk at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “I was not part of that decision.”
Pawlenty bowed out of the race on August 14 the day after a poor showing in the Iowa Straw Poll, saying his campaign had run out of money. Weber said it was a “fundamental and unfortunate error in strategy” to put all the campaign’s hopes on the straw poll.
As the GOP field expanded to included Rep. Michele Bachmann and others, Pawlenty’s somewhat more moderate ideology pushed him further and further to the middle, making it difficult for him to appeal to the conservative voters typically found in Iowa, Weber said.
“I think if Tim Pawlenty had been able to stay in the race he would have found that the argument he was making to Iowa, which was that he was the candidate that would unite the party and have the best chance of beating Barack Obama,…I think that our campaign would have had more resonance as you got closer to the vote.”
Now Weber is working for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He gave a peek into the campaign.
Weber admitted that so far, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the front-runner and will pose a challenge to Romney as a result.
The question, he said, “is that a solid position that’s going to hold, or is he benefiting disproportionately from the ‘new guy on the block’ syndrome?”
The real message that Romney will have to deliver is one of electability – and stay slightly to the left of Perry during the nomination process as a result. The strategy will work if what drives Republican voters this year is the desire to beat Obama.
Weber also talked about Romney’s recent attack on Perry for calling Social Security a “Ponzi” scheme, saying that Republicans walk a fine line on the issue. On one hand, they don’t want to alienate the older voters who make up a sizable portion of the party’s electorate. At the same time, Republicans have long railed against government spending, but not entitlement reform.
Republicans “can’t be in a position of maintaining [Social Security] as the untouchable third rail of politics” if it’s ever going to be reformed, Weber said.
Weber dismissed the notion that Romney’s Mormon religion will be trouble for him during the campaign. During the last election, Romney was doing well in Iowa until Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, came into the picture. Critics point to that dynamic as evidence Romney’s religion will hurt him politically.
But Weber says he interpreted Huckabee’s first place finish in the Iowa caucuses differently. Voters there were voting for a Baptist minister – someone like them – not against a Mormon.
Still, Romney’s religion could be a challenge in the South, Weber said.
“That’s not inconsequential,” he said.