Presidential campaigns are marathons, but time is running short for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Once viewed as the principal rival to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has struggled with lackluster donations, weak poll ratings, a sub-par debate performance and new home-grown competition from Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann.
Suddenly, those challenges have turned next month's Iowa Straw Poll into a critical showdown for Pawlenty.
After recording just 6 percent support in the Des Moines Register's survey of Iowa Republicans, Pawlenty must finish among the leaders in the straw poll to persuade donors his candidacy remains viable. In the most recent financial reports, he had only $1.4 million in cash left.
Pawlenty retains a chance to do that for two reasons. The first is his regional appeal as a candidate from nearby Minnesota. The second is a strong campaign infrastructure constructed by his young campaign manager Nick Ayers, and bolstered recently by the hiring of 2008 GOP candidate Mike Huckabee's daughter Sarah.
So inside Pawlenty HQ in a suburb of Des Moines, young field staffers and volunteers furiously work the phones in search of supporters willing to turn out in scorching summer heart to the straw poll in Ames. In all, only about 10,000 attendees are expected, which means the phone blitz involves more hits than misses.
When a new supporter is identified, a staffer rings an Iowa cow-bell to mark the success. Aides break up the 12-hour grind by tossing a football around their suite in an office park here.
Meantime, Pawlenty and his top national staffers alike have essentially relocated to the state for the next three weeks, all but ignoring targets elsewhere as they reach for an Iowa lifeline. Pawlenty has embarked on a grueling bus tour that often leaves him subsisting on his favorite fast food from Burger King and Chick-Fil-A—hold the mayo.
Even if he gets the boost he needs, Pawlenty may soon face another powerful rival in Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who appears to be leaning toward entering the 2012 contest.
Like Pawlenty, Perry boasts appeal to economic and social conservatives alike. Unlike Pawlenty, he's widely credited with an ability to fire up GOP activists.
In other words, Pawlenty's road to the nomination won't get easier anytime soon. But campaign manager Ayers insists that Pawlenty has a realistic chance—as he works through the grinding fatigue that Obama strategist David Plouffe warned him about at a Washington social event earlier this year.
"He pulled me aside at the White House Correspondents dinner, and he said I want to congratulate you on your job," Ayers recalled. "I can't wish you the best but I can tell you what the next year or two of your life will be like.
"A lot of people will tell you that you're going to have a blast. He said they're all lying to you. He said this is going to be the worst year of your life.
"The hours are brutal," Ayers concluded, affirming Plouffe's assessment. "So while I don't know that it's fun, it's certainly doing this for the right reason and I believe in what the outcome could be."