TAMPA — The vast majority of Floridians couldn't pick Tim Pawlenty out of a lineup. He barely registers in the polls. And there's a decent chance he'll have to quit the presidential race soon if he continues to show little momentum in Iowa.
And yet something curious is happening in Florida: Influential Republican leaders continue to line up behind the former Minnesota governor, even with little evidence he's a viable contender.
"I don't know or care if he's got a 5 percent chance or a 50 percent chance or an 80 percent chance, what matters right now is we need people who stand up for what they believe in,'' said state Rep. Richard Corcoran of New Port Richey, a Pawlenty supporter in line to be speaker of the Florida House.
Another future House speaker, former Mitt Romney supporter Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary, likened it to PC users who are satisfied with their computers and Apple users who are ardent about theirs.
"Other people support their candidate, but Tim Pawlenty people are passionate about him," Dorworth said before a Pawlenty fundraising lunch that drew about 40 people to Tampa's InterContinental hotel Tuesday.
The campaign stop was only part of a busy political week in Tampa, which, starting today, hosts the Republican National Committee's summer meeting. More than 200 people will be in town checking out the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Florida is expected to have one of the earliest presidential primary contests, and on a fundraising swing that took Pawlenty, 50, through Orlando Monday evening and Tampa and Miami on Tuesday, he made clear Florida is a key part of his strategy to win the nomination.
"We're looking forward to having a robust campaign in Florida. I think we've got the earliest and best and most prominent team of political leaders, volunteer leaders in this state," he said in an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9 airing Sunday on Political Connections.
Pawlenty, who also schmoozed with GOP activists at the Buddy Brew coffee shop in Tampa, said he expects to compete in a potentially crucial Florida GOP "Presidency 5" straw poll in September.
But Iowa is do or die for Pawlenty, and by his own admission his campaign can't afford a weak showing in an Aug. 13 "straw poll" — a symbolic, but nonbinding vote by party activists — in Ames, Iowa. A poor showing could take him out before Florida's poll even occurs.
Angling to be the main Republican alternative to Romney, the low-key Pawlenty has brought on board top Republican consultants nationally and in early primary states, but so far he has been overshadowed by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a fellow Minnesotan, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential candidate. Most Iowa polls show Pawlenty mired in single digits well behind Bachmann and Romney.
"Every month there's the flavor of the month where somebody's thinking about running, not running, gets in, doesn't get in,'' Pawlenty said, suggesting that ultimately people will focus on people's records. He was particularly skeptical of Bachmann's staying power.
"The last thing we want is another person in that office who wasn't prepared for that office, doesn't have executive experience and, with all due respect to congresswoman Bachmann, her record of results in Congress is nonexistent," he said.
Pawlenty supporters see a person with a blue-collar background, strong faith and a record of cutting government even in Democratic-leaning Minnesota.
"When I spend time with Gov. Pawlenty, I get a comfort in his leadership style, I get comfort in his conservative philosophy, and I get comfort in his ability to beat the president,'' said state Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, another future state House speaker and former Romney backer.
Endorsements don't necessarily translate to votes. But they can provide credibility in a primary dominated by hard-core Republicans.
Romney has an extensive fundraising network in Florida where he campaigned hard in 2008, but Pawlenty has been winning over a new generation of under-40 Republican fundraisers and political leaders, some of whom have the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a top presidential campaign rather than a late-comer to Romney. As of June 30, Pawlenty had about $2 million on hand, compared to nearly $13 million for Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"I don't necessarily have anything to gain by getting on board," said 28-year-old state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, "but maybe we can build momentum by showing we have a team here in Florida and show the people that trusted us to be leaders in this state that we're willing to stick our neck out for somebody we believe is a true leader."