Pawlenty: This Isn't the Soviet Union

| Thu Aug. 11, 2011 12:11 PM EDT

When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty entered the back room for a meet-and-greet at Cronk's Café in Denison, Iowa on Wednesday afternoon, my neighbor offered a blunt assessment: "They had a much bigger crowd here Monday." That was when Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, stopped by.

That's just the way things have been going for Pawlenty, who, despite more or less entering the race as soon as the last one ended at Grant Park, has been going backwards in the nation's first primary state. With three days to go until the Ames Straw Poll, Pawlenty's ratcheting up his rhetoric and taking less thinly veiled shots at his competitors. (He is also offering an enticement of a different sort to prospective straw poll attendees: free barbecue and ice cream.)

Pawlenty showed up on time, which counts for something perhaps, but, as my neighbor noted, it was hardly an overflow crowd. About 30 people showed up—restaurant staff included—mostly elderly, many of them still undecided and less than enthusiastic at the Governor's message. Pawlenty begins with the same message he closes with: Republicans need to go with the sure thing, not the flavor of the month. As he explains it, every candidate on the GOP ballot will support spending cuts, oppose abortion, and vow to appoint conservative judges; he's the only one who's actually done these things. "The hour is late, and the country is in big trouble," he said. "We need to get it done."

But the knock on Pawlenty, at least among Republicans, and there may be something to that. He speaks with a directness that his supporters would likely cast as unsparing and tough, but which can also come across as earnest and perhaps a little pleading (also: loud). He doesn't so much deliver his stump speech as paraphrase it in a long series of bullet-pointed resume items. Listen for a little while and you can start to see why his campaign sets all of his commercials to action-movie music.

There wasn't a lack of red meat. On the Environmental Protection Agency? He'd keep it (unlike Bachmann) but "the woman who runs it should be fired." On Social Security? "They running a Ponzi scheme." Responding to a question about the National Labor Relations Board's decision to intervene in a Boeing plant in South Carolina, he pulls the red card: "This isn't the Soviet Union in the 1950s. This is America." Which is true. He describes the government's purchase of treasury bills as "taking their Visa card to pay off their Discover card."

Not everyone was persuaded. "I agree with him—I mean, what's not to agree with?" said Cyrila Roberts of Dunlap, Iowa. "But does he have the strength of character and fortitude to do what he says he'll do? That's what I'm wondering." Having seen both candidates now, she's more impressed by Cain. Her top issue, she says, is "the illegals." Cain, who has promised to build a Great Wall of China-style barrier on the border along with a alligator-filled moat, would seem to have that one down. Michael Peters, a 26-year-old from Denison and one of the few young people in attendance, appreciated Pawlenty's answer to his question about Obamacare (he's against it). But he still likes Cain: "He's not so much a politician. He came down to the working man. When he was CEO of Godfather's, he came down to the working man."

After first casting himself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, Pawlenty has been successively one-upped by a series of alternatives to the alternative: first Cain, then fellow Minnesotan Rep. Michele Bachmann, and—coming soon!—Texas Gov. Rick Perry. His message now is clear: Don't make the same mistake Democrats made; go with the sure thing. The question is, is anyone listening?