ST. PAUL, Minn. — Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination on Sunday, hours after Saturday’s Iowa straw poll in which Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann came out on top.
The test vote of Iowans on Saturday was a show of popularity and organizational strength for Bachmann, the tea party favorite, five months before the state’s caucuses kick off the GOP presidential nominating season.
The result is the first indication of what Iowans think of the field of Republicans competing for the chance to challenge President Barack Obama next fall. But it’s hardly predictive of who will win the winter Iowa contest, much less the party nod or the White House.
Rather, Saturday’s outcome suggests that Bachmann has a certain level of support and, perhaps even more important, the strongest get-out-the-vote operation and widest volunteer base in a state whose caucuses require those elements.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished a close second, while Pawlenty placed a distant third.
“I wish it would have been different. But obviously the pathway forward for me doesn’t really exist so we are going to end the campaign,” Pawlenty, 50, said on ABC’s “This Week” from Iowa shortly after disclosing his plans in a private conference call with supporters.
The low-key Midwesterner and two-term governor had struggled to gain traction in a state he had said he must win and never caught fire nationally with a Republican electorate seemingly craving a charismatic, nonestablishment rabble-rouser to go up against President Barack Obama.
Pawlenty tried to turn up the heat on Obama and his GOP rivals. But it often came across as unnatural and he never was able to stoke the passions of voters.
In recent weeks, he withered under the rise of Bachmann, whose rallying cry is a sure-fire applause line about making Obama a one-term president, and libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, as well as the promise of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the sharp-tongued Texan who entered the race Saturday.
Bachmann was quick to praise Pawlenty, perhaps mindful of the need to broaden her appeal and reach his backers, who span the ideological spectrum.
“I wish him well,” Bachmann said. “He brought a really important voice into the race and I am grateful that he was in. He was really a very good competitor.”
Bachmann won with 4,823 votes, while Texas Rep. Paul got 4,671. Pawlenty received 2,293.
Perry and Bachmann were competing for attention Sunday as their campaign schedules put them at the same event.
Both have the backing of tea partyers and evangelical conservatives. Both already are making big plays for those two important constituencies in Iowa.
Perry was making his first campaign visit to Iowa since announcing his candidacy Saturday in South Carolina in a speech that emphasized his economic credentials and Texas’ job growth, as well as his conservative stances on social issues and his faith.
The chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he’s an establishment candidate who could be an attractive candidate for economic conservatives in this lead-off caucus state who are looking for a candidate to rally around. Enthusiasm for the GOP national front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and his strong economic message has been muted.
Bachmann, who has risen in Iowa polls since entering the race this summer, was reveling in her first-place Iowa finish.
“We see this as just the very first step in a very long race,” Bachmann said on NBC’s “Meet the Press. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”
A candidate backed largely by the grass-roots, she appeared on all the Sunday morning news programs as she worked to broaden her appeal and challenge rivals more linked to the establishment.
Pawlenty’s exit means there’s now an available contingent of top GOP staff and consultants, including former state party chairman, former advisers to President George W. Bush and senior advisers to Mike Huckabee’s winning 2008 caucus campaign, including Sarah Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor’s daughter. Top legislators who had signed on to Pawlenty’s camp also now are free to rally behind other candidates.
It’s not yet clear the size of the electorate Pawlenty frees up. GOP activists commonly praised his skill and background, but many were holding out until they met other candidates. This was an especially common reaction among a class of pro-business Republicans in Iowa.
Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who made a splash Friday when she visited the state fair, weren’t listed on Saturday’s straw poll ballots, though their backers planned write-in campaigns.
The straw poll isn’t a scientific poll at all; it amounts to a popularity contest and a test of organizational strength. Tickets to participate and vote in the event cost $30, though some campaigns picked up the tab for the tickets they distributed to their backers.
Poor showings usually force some candidates, mostly those who are not well-known and are struggling to raise money, to abandon their bids. That could happen this year, too.
The straw poll has a mixed record of predicting the outcome of the precinct caucuses.
In 2008, Romney won the straw poll, but the big news was the surprising second-place showing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but dropped from the race soon after. Sen. John McCain, who eventually won the nomination, didn’t compete in the straw poll and finished in 10th place.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Philip Elliott in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.