Pawlenty endorses Romney; will Iowa backers follow?

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty endorsed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for president this morning, trying to set the media agenda as eight Republican candidates prepare to debate in Florida this evening.

You can read Pawlenty’s e-mail endorsing Romney here. He cited Romney’s character, conservative principles, qualifications and service in the public and private sector. The e-mail does not depict Romney as a more electable alternative to the GOP front-runner, Rick Perry. When Pawlenty was still in the presidential race, he frequently warned audiences that the only way Republicans could mess up this election was to nominate the wrong candidate against President Barack Obama. At the time, Pawlenty was commonly understood to be talking about Representative Michele Bachmann, a leading rival in Iowa. But Romney and his surrogates have been pushing an electability argument against Perry for days, citing the Texas governor’s comments about Social Security.

Just before a Republican presidential debate in June, Pawlenty bashed Romney’s record, calling the Massachusetts health care reform “Obamneycare.” Speaking on Fox News today, Pawlenty brushed off a question about the similarities between Romney’s health care plan and the federal law Democrats passed in 2010: “Mitt Romney is 100 percent dedicated and committed to repealing Obamacare. He has said on day one and when he’s president, he’s going to issue executive orders that will give states waivers from Obamacare and then he will take the additional steps to repeal it.”

Romney mostly avoided Iowa over the summer and hasn’t built up a large campaign organization here so far. Quite a few Iowa Republican state legislators supported Romney for president in 2008, but this year only State Senator James Hahn and State Representative Renee Schulte endorsed him early. State Representative Linda Miller had joined a steering committee for Pawlenty but endorsed Romney shortly after Pawlenty left the race. Several of Romney’s 2008 endorsers are committed to other candidates: State Senator David Johnson is backing Perry, Senator Brad Zaun is backing Bachmann, and former House Speaker Chris Rants (now retired from the legislature) is supporting Representative Thad McCotter.

Perry only just started hiring Iowa staff last month. So far the best-known Iowa elected official to endorse him is State Senator Johnson. Governor Terry Branstad has promised to remain neutral before the Iowa caucuses but has made his admiration for Perry clear on many occasions. Branstad has also urged Romney to spend more time campaigning in Iowa.

To my knowledge, none of Pawlenty’s former Iowa campaign leaders have committed to another candidate yet. Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker was chairing Pawlenty’s campaign, and his co-chairs were former State Representative and Iowa GOP co-chair Jim Kurtenbach, former gubernatorial candidate Christian Fong, Ames-based businessman Roger Underwood, and former State Auditor Richard Johnson.

Ten Iowa legislators formally backed Pawlenty over the summer. As I mentioned above, State Representative Linda Miller is already on board with Romney. That leaves the following still uncommitted: Senators Randy Feenstra, Rob Bacon and Shawn Hamerlinck, and State Representatives Chip Baltimore, Joel Fry, Erik Helland, Chris Hagenow, Steve Lukan and Matt Windschitl.

Any comments about the Republican presidential race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Matt Whitaker joined the Perry campaign as Iowa co-chair on September 13.

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