SALT LAKE CITY — The Republican presidential-nomination race swapped governors this weekend, with Rick Perry announcing his candidacy and the Iowa straw poll ushering in the end of Tim Pawlenty's bid for the White House.
Perry, the governor of Texas, officially entered the race Saturday, months behind many of his GOP rivals, while Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, announced the end of his campaign Sunday, hours after a disappointing third-place finish in the poll.
Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinkley Institute of Politics, said Pawlenty's announcement comes as little surprise. Despite a strong start, Pawlenty struggled to gain traction nationwide and staked the future of his campaign on success in Iowa.
"A few months ago, this would be huge news that Tim Pawlenty drops out," Jowers said. "He was widely seen as the most serious contender next to Romney, but his campaign never caught fire, and so now when he drops out, it's almost a foregone conclusion."
What remains to be seen, however, is how this change affects the chances of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Both candidates largely ignored the straw poll, electing to focus their campaigns elsewhere, finishing toward the bottom of the results.
Jowers said, however, that a poor finish in the Iowa poll is unlikely to mean much for either candidate. Campaigning, he said, involves managing expectations, and since neither Romney nor Huntsman participated in the straw poll, both should come off relatively unscathed.
"In 2007, Mitt Romney put everything he had into the Iowa straw poll and he won it," Jowers said. "This time, Romney said 'I'm not going to participate in it' and no one cares where he finished because he simply didn't play that game."
Huntsman, on the other hand, has been focusing on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. The test of his candidacy will be how he performs in those states, Jowers said. If things do not improve, it may not be long before Huntsman follows Pawlenty out the exit door.
"What hurts Huntsman is when he is still finishing near the bottom in those states where he is actually participating," Jowers said. "He has to turn around New Hampshire fairly quickly, or he might be the next one dropped out the other end."
While Pawlenty was at one time viewed as a key rival to Romney, that distinction has long since shifted to Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. With the entrance of Rick Perry, another shift may be coming.
"I think from the very start, everyone expected there to be two people who would be viable once 2012 comes around," Jowers said. "One would be Romney, and one would be somebody else, and everyone is vying to be essentially the anti-Romney. Right now, I think most people would bet on Rick Perry, but you just don't know if he will really catch fire."
While his candidacy has certainly made waves in the GOP, Perry, who assumed the governorship of Texas in 2000 when George W. Bush was elected president, now faces the task of drawing supporters away from his competitors who have been campaigning and fundraising for months.
Looking over the field of GOP candidates, Jowers said Romney is the "runaway front-runner" and described Bachmann as an "interesting candidate" for being the only viable female in the race and the tea party darling. While Perry will be the big story for the next couple of weeks, Jowers said it will soon become clear what kind of Republican he is and what threat he poses to the other candidates.
"Rick Perry is going to need to take away some of the Bachmann support, but he is also trying to play in that field where Romney and Huntsman and Pawlenty used to be," Jowers said. "These next two or three weeks, we'll see how Perry is branded and see where his support comes from, and we'll have a really good idea by the first of September on how this is going to play out."