Pawlenty looks to Florida to bolster his standing in GOP primary race
TAMPA - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is hoping an influential organization in Florida and signs of life in Iowa will revive a presidential campaign that isn't yet showing the grassroots excitement he needs. In Iowa, Pawlenty needs a strong showing in an Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames – but polls there show him running a distant third to Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Pawlenty may have better prospects in Florida, but even his Florida backers acknowledge he needs to move forward in Iowa or he might never get a chance to show his Florida strength. He'll bring his campaign through Florida this week, holding fundraisers in Orlando, Miami and Tampa, and a public appearance in Tampa Tuesday afternoon.His Tampa venue will be the same downtown coffee shop where Mitt Romney held a town hall with out-of-work job seekers in June, Buddy Brew on Kennedy Boulevard. Pawlenty's campaign said he's not trying to follow Romney around, but chose Buddy Brew for its central location and because it's a hub of political chat with an owner, Dave Ward, who's friendly to Republicans. Pawlenty has good Florida fundraising prospects. His fundraisers will be hosted by the legislators designated as the next three state House speakers -- Reps. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary and Richard Corcoran of New Port Richey -- providing leverage to draw contributions from business interests concerned about state legislation. Pawlenty also has endorsements from 11 other state House members, and his Florida fundraising team, led by Winter Park developer Phil Handy, appears second only to Mitt Romney's in prominent GOP financial pillars. Nationwide, however, political commentators are using words like "stalled" to describe Pawlenty's campaign. He was the first prominent GOP candidate to announce in a late-forming field, coming out of the gate in May, but so far appears to be generating some respect but little excitement. Early polls in presidential primaries are notoriously changeable and misleading, measuring mainly name recognition, experts say. But so far, they don't look good for Pawlenty: Weatherford said he's not worried about national polls because Pawlenty isn't running a national campaign, but a campaign focused on the early states. That focus starts with Iowa and New Hampshire, but will turn quickly to Florida, which has a key straw poll in late September and will probably have an early primary – no later than early March. "When he turns his attention to Florida after the Ames straw poll, I think he will definitely connect here," Weatherford said. But he acknowledged, "In order for him to get to Florida, he's got to do well in some of the early states." Added Handy, "If he does well in Ames, then the nation's going to start talking about him." Backers list Pawlenty's advantages as a candidate – he's 50, has an attractive family, a personal history as the first in his working-class family to go to college, and a public service record that includes working as a prosecutor and winning the governorship in a blue state. All that makes him a candidate who can appeal to establishment Republicans including Weatherford, Handy and others, but tea party Republicans are looking for something they're not finding in Pawlenty, said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican. "His campaign is stalled and in trouble," Paulson said. "His problem seems to be he's got the support of a lot of politically well-connected names, but hasn't been able to develop any grassroots support." To the GOP's social conservative and Tea Party base, Paulson said, Pawlenty seems bland by comparison to fellow Minnesotan Bachmann, who ignites that base. In the initial stages of the campaign, Pawlenty generated little good news, and some bad news. In his first nationally televised debate performance in June, he vacillated on his previous criticism of Romney over a health care plan similar to Obama's that Romney enacted in Massachusetts. His saving grace may be that it's early – six months or more before the first actual votes will be cast in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – and his appeal to GOP leaders will help him raise money to sustain a long-haul campaign. "I think like Mark Twain said, the predictions of his campaign's demise are premature," said prominent Pawlenty financial backer Justin Sayfie, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and lobbyist. "This is a marathon, not a sprint." Sayfie said Pawlenty's appeal to "rising leaders" in the party, such as the future Florida House speakers, will gradually draw the attention of GOP voters. "Gov. Pawlenty's approach is slow and steady and one vote at a time," he said. "He's going to peak at the right time."
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