AMES, Iowa — Trailing in polls and low on cash, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is betting the future of his presidential campaign on Iowa, where a late summer test vote could make or break him.
"We look to the Ames straw poll as a chance to show improvement," Pawlenty said in an interview this week, acknowledging his lagging fortunes as he opened a 15-day Iowa campaign stretch a month before the state popularity contest that's often a launch pad or cemetery for White House hopefuls. "We have to show some reasonable improvement at the straw poll, and then we've got to be in a position to win, or come close to it, in the caucuses."
The Iowa Republican Party's Aug. 13 straw poll has become Pawlenty's sole focus six months before the state's leadoff presidential caucuses, and for good reason.
By traditional measures, the low-key Midwesterner has little to show for his efforts to raise his profile and build a winning campaign since he first visited politically important Iowa in November 2009. He has the largest staff of any candidate for Iowa's caucuses but registered support from just 6 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers in a recent Des Moines Register poll.
He acknowledged in the interview that this week begins a critical test for him in Iowa, where he's supplementing his two-week visit with a new television ad and mailbox brochures all aimed at building support for the straw poll.
"You can't really have an impact until you have a sustained concerted series of campaign activities, backed up by mail and media and that's what we're doing now," he said.
But the pivotal month has not gotten off to a smooth start.
On Tuesday, Pawlenty's campaign sought to grab headlines with the news that Sarah Huckabee, the daughter of the failed presidential contender and 2008 caucus winner Mike Huckabee, had signed on as an adviser. But that news was buried by a Florida jury's innocent verdict in the trial of accused killer Casey Anthony.
Hours later, the University of New Hampshire released its latest poll of likely Republican primary voters. It showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 35 percent of support in the first-in-the-nation primary state and Pawlenty with just 3 percent.
And by Wednesday, Pawlenty found himself having to denounce a top adviser's comment Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's early rise in Iowa was due in part to her "sex appeal." He had wanted to spend his first day of a sustained Iowa campaign stretch introducing a message stressing his record handling serious issues.
He hopes to right his campaign on Sunday in an appearance Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Pawlenty, a two-term Republican governor of a Democratic-leaning state who was on 2008 GOP nominee John McCain's short-list for the vice presidential slot, has spent the past year and a half working to establish himself as a top-tier candidate. He hired a staff of veteran presidential campaign operatives. He raised millions in support of other candidates. And he gave $2 million in 2010 to local politicians in early primary voting states, hoping to earn chits for his presidential run.
So far, he has little to show for it.
Last week, Pawlenty said he raised $4.2 million over the past three months, with only some of it available to him if he wins the nomination. It's a paltry sum compared to Romney, the GOP front-runner who brought in more than $18 million, all of it for the primary.
And last month, he rolled out an economic policy at the University of Chicago only to be ridiculed by fellow Republicans, including his opponents, for proposals they said could not be taken seriously as a governing plan.
He found himself on the defensive over the plan the following week during a debate in which his own performance was widely panned.
Pawlenty had laid the groundwork in a news interview to assail Romney over the Massachusetts' health care law that was a model for President Barack Obama's nationwide one that conservatives despise. But Pawlenty hesitated to attack Romney during the debate, feeding into criticism that Pawlenty isn't tough enough to be the nominee.
He later acknowledged a misstep, saying: "I should have been much more clear during the debate."
The laid-back, soft-spoken Midwesterner also has been dogged by voter concerns that he isn't gung-ho enough to take on Obama.
"The loudest guy or woman in the bar usually isn't the toughest. They are usually just the loudest," Pawlenty said during a question-and-answer session in Urbandale on Thursday when Republican Bill Campbell told the candidate he wished he would come across with more passion. "You don't have to be a jerk to be strong. You can be nice and strong."
Campbell, a retired postal worker, wasn't entirely sold.
"He's got so much substance, executive experience and political ability," Campbell said after the event. "He needs to show the inner-strength he has. He just comes across as too nice."
Still, Campbell said he was leaning toward supporting Pawlenty.
Pawlenty hoped to convince others to do the same in appearances across Iowa, where the Register poll showed Romney leading with Bachmann close behind.
He acknowledged that the straw poll was pivotal to boosting his standing but he argued that he doesn't have to win it to show momentum.
It has reshaped previous Republican contests.
Four years ago, Huckabee used a surprising second-place to catapult his second-tier candidacy into the headlines while former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was all but forced to abandon his bid after a poor showing. In 2000, a straw poll victory solidified as national front-runner then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush while ushering from the campaign former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Pawlenty is keenly aware of the stakes, and hopes to emerge as the former not the latter.
His candidacy may just depend on it.
Associated Press reporter Philip Elliott reported from Washington.