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Pawlenty, Bachmann offer study in contrasts as they campaign in Iowa

AMES, Iowa ó Roaming across the high summer farm fields here, Minnesota Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann offer a study in contrasts as they hurtle forward in the last 72 hours before what has become, for them, Saturday’s all-important Iowa straw poll.|By Rachel Stassen-Berger and Kevin Diaz, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

AMES, Iowa ó Roaming across the high summer farm fields here, Minnesota Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann offer a study in contrasts as they hurtle forward in the last 72 hours before what has become, for them, Saturday’s all-important Iowa straw poll.

Now in the closing phase of a contest that has taken on the feel of Election Day, their different styles underlie a clear difference in enthusiasm that has many Iowa GOP veterans giving the advantage to Bachmann.

Bachmann, talking to about 100 workers at a print shop in Clive, brings the artful flash and passion of a tent revival meeting: A big bus, lights, cameras, sophisticated sound system, a ready-made riser with packing boxes stacked behind her and an American flag snapping in the background.

“I’m a real person,” the three-term congresswoman tells the gathered crowd. “I’m a mom. I’m not a politician.” Despite a decade in elective office, Bachmann revels in her outsider image, casting her anti-Washington image in starkly personal terms.

Pawlenty carries the earnest appeal of a Sunday school teacher. Low-key, amiable, the former governor dresses in jeans and slightly-wrinkled button down shirts that would fit as comfortably in the crowd as in front of it.

He travels in an unmarked RV and ambles off it accompanied only by a few long-time staffers. Where Bachmann’s rhetoric comes in fast and hot, Pawlenty’s is a lower burn. At a picnic Tuesday, Bachmann ignited the crowd within seconds, while Pawlenty garnered his first major applause line 10 minutes in.

Whoever voters pick on Saturday will instantly catapult out of Iowa into the noisy thrum of a presidential campaign already in full swing in the early primary states of South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Expectations for both Pawlenty and Bachmann are high. Many consider Bachmann the presumptive front-runner heading into Saturday’s poll and anything less than a win may be perceived as a stumble. Pawlenty has set a low goal; moving from the back of the pack closer to the front. But others say if he doesn’t finish close to the top, he may be too badly hobbled to move on.

Wednesday morning found Pawlenty standing in front of bookshelves in an Adel coffee shop, his backdrop a single banner bearing his name. No theme music, no production values. He offered no soaring call to action, no outrage.

Instead, the two-term governor ran through his personal and political history, touching on conservative issues and his faith, layering in his takes on health care policy, education and his history-making veto record.

“Keep in mind what I got done in Minnesota. It was a lot,” an even-toned Pawlenty said, pausing to explain to Iowans the “unallotment” law that allowed him to cut Minnesota’s budget on his own authority.

In the simmering match-up between style and organization, polls give a clear lead to Bachmann, a favorite among evangelical activists who will make up a significant chunk of the straw poll voters in Ames.

But even at this late stage, minds are still being made up and a Thursday night debate among most of the GOP field could be a game-changer.

“The debate is huge,” said GOP strategist Craig Robinson, a veteran of past straw polls in Ames. “It could definitely affect the results on Saturday.”

The first Republican presidential debate in South Carolina gave an enormous boost to former Godfather’s Pizza Chairman Herman Cain, who dominated the field by dint of a strong personality. The second debate, televised from New Hampshire, transformed Bachmann from a fringe congressional back-bencher to a top-tier candidate articulating the vision of her tea party faithful.

Pawlenty failed to dazzle in the South Carolina debate and New Hampshire was a disaster, crystallizing an image of Pawlenty shrinking from a face-to-face confrontation against national frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Romney will be back on the debate stage Thursday night, though he’s not actively campaigning for the Ames straw poll. Analysts will watch to see whether Pawlenty follows through with his attack rhetoric when faced with his competitors. As Bachmann has steadily overshadowed his campaign, Pawlenty has turned up the heat on her, calling her record in Congress “non-existent.”

As he steadily marches through Iowa, Pawlenty’s low-key style has won him adherents among Iowans leery of conspicuous gamesmanship and stagecraft.

“He’s not a Michele Bachmann,” said Janice Parker, of Humboldt. But, she said, in Pawlenty’s 20-minute address, “He made me cry. He made me laugh.”

The governor pledged before a small Adel crowd in a bookstore and coffee shop that he could fight, pointing to his battles with a divided Minnesota Legislature.
“We had all-out fights,” Pawlenty said.

Jim Carley, who heads a local tea party group outside Des Moines, said Pawlenty is “doing better than the polls suggest.” Carley said he wavered between Bachmann and Pawlenty for weeks before settling on Pawlenty.

“Since she hired this Washington staff, she’s been doing these rah-rah events, answers a few questions and then takes off,” a dissatisfied Carley said.

Others see something deeply authentic in Bachmann. “She kind of hit home with me,” said Eric Fitzhugh, one of the company executives who heard Bachmann speak in Clive. “She did a real good job of tapping into what people are concerned about these days. It seems to touch the hearts of the people.”


(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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