NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — It’s been 60 days since Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty last visited New Hampshire.
The former Minnesota governor’s campaign says the prolonged absence from the first-in-the-nation primary state is meaningless over the summer months. But New Hampshire voters, and his early supporters, have noticed. And Pawlenty’s uphill road to success here may have grown steeper after his decision to concentrate over these past weeks on Saturday’s Iowa straw poll, a symbolic contest likely to involve fewer than 15,000 activists.
Other contenders are skipping the straw poll altogether, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is to announce his candidacy Saturday. Each of them will be in the New Hampshire this weekend as the rest of the field eats and sleeps Iowa.
“The Pawlenty campaign is paralyzed right now as he focuses on Iowa,” said Mike Dennehy, a top New Hampshire Republican operative who led Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign four years ago. “It’s personal time with a candidate, especially an insurgent candidate, that will make the final sale.”
In his absence, Pawlenty has dispatched his wife, Mary, to the Granite State twice so far. Pawlenty also makes regular phone calls to help persuade key New Hampshire activists to join his campaign, which has struggled to gain traction in the polls. And on the ground, a team of nine paid staff crisscrosses the state to attend every town committee meeting, street fair and coffee hour they can.
That’s not enough for Ken Eyring, co-organizer for the Southern New Hampshire 9-12 Project.
He joined a handful of uncommitted Republican activists at Bonhoeffer’s Cafe recently for a coffee hour with Jennifer Horn, a former congressional candidate and top local Pawlenty surrogate. Eyring and his conservative group want to see the candidate in the flesh.
“He’s down in the polls. He needs to convince people that he’s the right guy,” Eyring told a Pawlenty staffer at the coffee shop. “If by bringing this up today it will help encourage Gov. Pawlenty to come and talk to us, great.”
Pawlenty was among the most active candidates in New Hampshire earlier in the year. Between January and mid-June, he attended no fewer than 24 events over 12 days of public appearances. He last was there June 13, when he made a variety of campaign-related stops and participated in the GOP presidential debate. That has not translated to success in the polls, however. He has consistently finished in the low single digits in local and national polls.
Republican operatives concede that Pawlenty has boxed himself into a strategy that hinges on a strong performance in Iowa. He isn’t expected to reappear in New Hampshire until late next week.
That can’t come soon enough for some New Hampshire supporters.
“Strategically, it’s very important that the governor give his attention to the Iowa straw poll,” Horn said at the coffee shop. “When the straw poll is over, New Hampshire becomes Pawlenty country.”
And spokesman Alex Conant said Pawlenty is the only candidate in the race “committed to doing whatever we can to do well in both Iowa and New Hampshire.”
“We’re equally invested in both states,” Conant said.
But some supporters are growing restless as candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who are skipping the Iowa straw poll, pound the pavement here.
State Rep. Shaun Doherty, a Pawlenty New Hampshire Steering Committee member, already has defected to the Romney camp, in part because of frustration that Pawlenty hadn’t focused enough on his state. Others may be teetering.
Still, the former Minnesota governor’s supporters insist that few voters are paying attention to retail politics roughly six months before the primary contest.
“We anticipated and prepared for what’s going on and we’re very happy with the results,” John Lyons, Pawlenty’s state chairman, said. “There aren’t many voters outside the political wonks that have any interest in looking any candidate in the eye right now. They want to be at the beach or their summer house.”
The ground staff is building momentum, Lyons added, by being a steady presence at “every GOP event, town picnic, holiday parade and fair.” “We’re in all the right spots.”
Further, the campaign last month announced the endorsements of Horn and Bruce Keough, a former state senator and top official in the state higher education system. They are thought to represent opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, an example of Pawlenty’s strategy to draw enough support from different factions of the electorate to win the Republican presidential nomination.
New Hampshire conservative leader Ovide Lamontagne warned that Pawlenty has very little margin for error.
“As time passes, there’s an opportunity lost. So, for Gov. Pawlenty, he’s got to make sure his organization continues to roll out some key names,” said Lamontagne, who has yet to make an endorsement. “He has a good team in New Hampshire already, so I think his absence probably isn’t fatal with that team in place. But the longer it goes, the more it tends to lose momentum and steam.”
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