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Politics

Bachmann's Rise Is Bad News for Pawlenty

Her strength in Iowa threatens the former Minnesota governor’s bid to become the Republican alternative to Mitt Romney.

The big loser in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s sudden rise as a Republican presidential contender? Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

His bid to be the GOP’s top alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hinges on winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses next January. Pawlenty won’t win the second contest -- the New Hampshire primary -- and probably can’t win the South Carolina primary without a strong boost from Iowa. Three losses in a row cripples any candidate in a crowded presidential field because voters and contributors are quick to take their support elsewhere. For a candidate such as Pawlenty, with a name that’s not well known in much of the country and a campaign that’s stuck in single digits in the polls, anything short of a win in Iowa probably represents a mortal blow.

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Bachmann could deliver that blow to her fellow Minnesotan. Her conservative leanings, tea party backing and fiery personality make her a better fit with the Republicans most likely to participate in the Iowa caucuses than the more moderate, laid-back Pawlenty.

But ruining Pawlenty’s presidential aspirations doesn’t necessarily mean Bachmann will end up as Romney’s main opponent for the Republican nomination. Beating expectations in one debate, as Bachmann did recently, does not make a candidate invincible. It does, though, move her into the top tier of GOP contenders hoping to thwart Romney from winning the right to challenge President Obama in November 2012. That says more, perhaps, about the unsettled nature of the race than it does about Bachmann.

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How she does between now and next spring, when the GOP nominee will be chosen, depends on the answers to two big questions.

The first: Who else ends up running? If either former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets into the race, Bachmann’s stock could go down, since both appeal to the same staunch conservatives who find her an attractive candidate.

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It still looks as though Palin will stay on the sidelines. She’s raking in a ton of money by giving speeches and making television appearances. And she can afford to bide her time, at least from the perspective of age. In 2016, when Democrats won’t have an automatic front-runner and the race will be wide open, Palin will be just 52 years old.

Perry, who replaced George W. Bush as governor after Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 presidential race, seems likely to throw his hat into the ring. He has the conservative credentials to rival Bachmann in Iowa and South Carolina, and a solid performance in those states, both with early primaries, could drive her from the race. But Perry is taking his time to decide, and his candidacy is not a certainty.

The second question that will help decide how well Bachmann does: Will most Republican primary voters follow their hearts (that is, vote for a true conservative), or will they settle for a candidate with the best chance to defeat Obama in the general election, even if that candidate isn’t as far to the right as GOP primary voters would prefer? This question will also be of major importance to Perry, Palin and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

To spoil Obama’s bid for a second term, the Republican nominee must be able to appeal to independents and moderate Democrats while firing up the GOP base. At the moment, Romney seems to be the Republican who can make the strongest challenge. But the cloak of front-runner just barely fits him. If Republicans largely decide to vote based on conservative principles, Romney will be in for a long, expensive primary fight that will either send him packing or leave him bruised and strapped for cash for the general election showdown with Obama.

Time will tell if Bachmann has staying power. But even if she peaks too soon and the debate earlier this month was her brightest moment, it will have been precisely the wrong moment for Pawlenty. The debate was his chance to shine, too, but he chose instead to play nice guy. We all know where they finish.

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