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Tim Pawlenty’s Michele Bachmann Problem

In a Republican presidential race that could include the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Mississippi Gov. (and former Republican National Committee Chairman) Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty’s most troublesome potential opponent could well be a fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Pawlenty, a former two-term governor of Minnesota, got a break recently when Sen. John Thune (S.D.) announced he wouldn’t run for the 2012 GOP nomination.

Though the two men have different political backgrounds — Pawlenty has been in state government while Thune’s recent service has been in Washington, D.C. — the two 50-year-old Midwest Republicans would have been “competing for the same space,” according to one Republican consultant.

But Bachmann, a three-term Congresswoman whose support on the political right and among social conservatives rivals former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s, remains a potential problem for Pawlenty.

Although the two Minnesota Republicans don’t necessarily appeal to the same people, Bachmann’s presence in the Republican contest would undoubtedly draw some Minnesota money and support that would otherwise go to Pawlenty, even if only because he was the “local” guy in the race.

After all, Bachmann represents the most Republican district in the Gopher State. President George W. Bush won her district comfortably with 57 percent in 2004, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried it with 53 percent in 2008.

Many of the Republicans mentioned seriously as potential White House hopefuls start with a very narrow road to the nomination, but the route may be the narrowest for Pawlenty.

He starts a presidential race as the serious contender with the least national political buzz and uncertain fundraising ability, and unless that changes dramatically, he is likely to need a strong showing in neighboring Iowa to jump-start his bid for the GOP nomination.

If Pawlenty can’t get a bump out of Iowa, it’s hard to see him doing better in the three early state contests that will follow: New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Pawlenty almost surely needs to win either Iowa or New Hampshire to become his party’s nominee.

It isn’t by chance that Pawlenty’s initial team of campaign operatives includes two Iowa natives, Terry Nelson and Sara Taylor. Nelson was national political director of Bush’s 2004 campaign, while Taylor served as White House political director after Karl Rove.

Bachmann’s effect in Iowa would obviously depend on the makeup of the field, including whether Romney and former Arkansas Gov. and television celebrity Mike Huckabee make major efforts to win the caucuses.

Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008, while Romney finished second.

Bachmann was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in the state until her family moved to Minnesota, giving her a potentially important hook with caucus attendees if she runs.

Moreover, given that six out of 10 Iowa GOP caucus attendees identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians in 2008, Bachmann’s reputation for social conservatism would give her a strong credential to campaign for support.

While some GOP sources insist the conservative Congresswoman is trying to hire a field team in Iowa, a Republican ally of Bachmann urged caution, insisting that “she isn’t there yet.”

Still, Bachmann was in South Carolina recently and has a trip scheduled this month to the Hawkeye State, marking her second visit to Iowa since she first announced she was considering a White House bid.

A Bachmann bid for the Republican nomination might appear to be a Don Quixote-like quest, given the lack of success that House Members have had in running for the White House and the extent of her appeal.

After all, while supporters of Bachmann would be among the most passionate of any Republican hopeful, her appeal would be limited to only the most conservative elements of her party.

And if Palin were to enter the Republican race, it’s difficult to believe that Bachmann, who leads the Tea Party Caucus in the House and gave the tea party “response” to the State of the Union in January, would have any room to run in the contest.

Even if Bachmann didn’t believe that she could win her party’s nomination, she might still have an incentive to run.

She would surely get some media attention and would have another platform to advance her agenda. And Bachmann could mount a presidential campaign and test her appeal in Iowa without having to give up her Congressional seat.

But one ally of the Congresswoman dismissed the idea that Bachmann would run simply to articulate her views, arguing that if she does enter the race, it would be to win.

“She thinks there are people who want a Constitutional conservative to be the party’s nominee, and she believes that voters are looking for the new and different,” the source said.

As the GOP race for president starts to take shape, it’s worth remembering two things. First, Bachmann is not going to be the Republican nominee. And second, in a crowded Republican contest in Iowa next February, anything could happen.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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