Tim Pawlenty needs to shine in South Carolina

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Fox News is promoting tonight’s debate among Republicans in South Carolina as the kickoff to the 2012 primary season. A better description would be to call it the season opener of “American Idol — Celebrity Candidate Edition.”

While the eclectic Republican field might finally be coming together, as the Associated Press’ Philip Elliot suggests, the individual candidates participating in the debate have a better shot at winning Powerball than the 2012 GOP nomination. That is, except for former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Some might argue that Pawlenty is foolhardy to take the stage in South Carolina with this group. He’ll be a natural target for the candidates looking to score the big sound bite that will boost their visibility and fundraising numbers.

Despite the risks, Pawlenty needs exposure and he needs it now. The most recent poll from Quinnipiac University (published May 4) indicates that Pawlenty’s candidacy still suffers from low name recognition. To be fair, it has been little more than a month since Pawlenty’s announcement. Nonetheless, Pawlenty needs to quickly solidify his position among GOP primary voters and donors as a viable candidate before the spotlight swings to the other presumed top-tier contenders (Romney, Huckabee, Daniels).

As we told CNN in late March, when he officially formed his presidential exploratory committee, Pawlenty is a top-flight candidate who could go the primary distance because “his fiscally conservative record as Minnesota’s governor and his blue-collar message will resonate with Republican primary voters, but only if they get to know him.”

Unlike the former incumbent senator from Pennsylvania who managed a record-setting margin of defeat, the iconoclastic anti-war libertarian congressman, the pizza magnate or the pot-smoking former governor of New Mexico, all of whom are free to pick the issues they want to push in extremis, Pawlenty has to behave and look like a statesman throughout the entire debate to elevate himself to the level of serious contender.

Additionally, if he is to connect with a broad base of GOP primary voters, Tim Pawlenty has to act as if he is the only candidate on stage and not chase the other candidates down their own peculiar rabbit holes.

If Pawlenty is successful on Thursday night, journalists from around the country will be penning stories over the weekend about his candidacy, thereby providing him with the exposure that his campaign desperately needs.

Looking beyond this first debate, we have to ask whether Pawlenty can credibly go the primary distance. It is still early, but the answer to the question is an unqualified yes. A recent survey from Public Policy Polling (publish April 28) concerning GOP primary voters in the all-important 2012 swing state of Nevada bolsters our point: According to PPP’s Tom Jensen, “It’s no coincidence that Romney’s loss of support coincides with Pawlenty vaulting from 1% in January to now 8% in the Nevada polling…The two appeal to a similar type of voter and generally any time we’ve seen Pawlenty gain we’ve seen a corresponding Romney fall.”

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.