Is Pawlenty a second-tier candidate?

Is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty really a top-tier presidential contender?

The media certainly refer to him as one, often as the alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is widely viewed as the Republican front-runner. But with his continued poor performance in national primary polls, the expectation that he will not raise more than a few million dollars in the second quarter, and his most recent disastrous showing in the first major poll in Iowa, a state considered essential for him to do well in in in order to sustain his candidacy, people are beginning to question Pawlenty’s status as a top-tier candidate. (Pawlenty launches his first Iowa radio ad)

The Des Moines Register poll, released late Saturday night, found Pawlenty in sixth place with just 6 percent of the vote. Romney led with 23 percent, followed closely by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 22 percent. Businessman Herman Cain took third with 10 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who tied with 7 percent of the vote.

“If I were the Pawlenty camp, I would be enormously concerned about this poll,” Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told the Des Moines Register.

So just how did Pawlenty earn the title of top-tier candidate in the first place?

Pawlenty’s standing as a first-tier candidate has as much, if not more, to do with the campaign he has set up and the people with whom he has surrounded himself than it does with what he himself brings as a candidate.

“I think the reason why they continue to be seen by the establishment media as a tier-one candidate is because the perception is that he has high national electability,” said a GOP strategist who has been involved with several presidential campaigns.

“He has convinced the insiders, or the establishment media, that, you know, ‘I’ve got the really smart talent, and I’ve got experienced people, and, at the end of the day, they can make the difference to me.’ And those people work assiduously at having good relations with the press.”

“Basically, Pawlenty has a real operation,” said pollster Chris Perkins. “He’s got an Iowa team, a New Hampshire team, a team in Minneapolis … He’s building a real political operation.”

“There is always a race, and it’s usually between the front-runner and an alternative. In this case, the anti-Romney,” said Republican strategist Jim Dyke. “As a successful governor, Pawlenty, on paper, has the potential to … fit that position, and he has amassed a team that suggests he will do the things one needs to do — message, organization, resources.”

“The people that he’s hired and surrounded himself with, like Terry Nelson … Phil Musser … Nick Ayers — they’ve created this massive operation of always being in the news … of always being in the Washington press circle,” said Bob Kish, an Ohio-based Republican consultant who is working for Bachmann. They’re “hiring a lot of big names, spending a lot of money and creating this perception.”

But Kish said that a good campaign team is not enough.

“This political operation they set up might be a first-tier operation, but the fact is they have a second-tier candidate,” he said.