He may not place very high in the polls and comes across as one of the blandest candidates in the field, but my hunch is that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty should be viewed as the favorite to secure the Republican nomination next year.
The 2012 race will likely see two types of GOP candidates: the old-school moderates who will gain traction among National Review types, and Tea Partiers who will fight to out-crazy one another. They may share the same stage during debates, but the two sides will talk past each other during the campaign. You'll see Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman engage in policy discussions about the best way to handle defense spending while Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain egg each other on in response to the latest fringe conspiracy theory.
Pawlenty is the only candidate currently postured to engage both audiences. He has made a consistent effort to reach out to the Tea Party base during the early stages of his campaign. That push seems to have paid initial dividends -- Pawlenty has finished close to the top in a string of Tea Party straw polls. He does not employ rhetoric as harsh as other Tea Party favorites, but he could siphon off some support from that wing.
Unlike the other right-wingers, Pawlenty's outreach to the Tea Party has not stopped him from gaining the support of the party elite. As a two-term governor, he can say he has an equal level of experience as any other candidate in the field; he frequently touts his time working with a majority Democratic state legislature -- the type of language that the bipartisan obsessed Beltway leaders love.
Pawlenty has already successfully slotted himself as the anti-Romney choice for the party's big spenders. The Wall Street Journal details Pawlenty's success at winning over a slew of Texas GOP donors who have dominated fundraising in recent years.
The Pawlenty campaign held its biggest fund-raiser to date in Dallas on on Tuesday at the home of Tom Hicks, the private-equity and sports investor, who once owned the Texas Rangers baseball team. Co-hosts included heirs to the H.L. Hunt oil fortune, Dean Foods Chief Executive Gregg Engles, billionaire buyout investor Harold Simmons and Excel Communications founder Kenny Troutt.
The most important get for Pawlenty is Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, the largest Republican donor in the country who had been a Romney supporter in '08. Perry is the king of independent expenditures; he was the primary bankroller for American Crossroads in the last election and spearheaded the Swift Boat ads in 2004. If Perry locks himself fully into supporting a candidate, he can completely change the fundraising dynamics of the race.
Pawlenty still has a ways to go for my hunch to come true. He generally registers at the low single digits in polls, but he lacks the name recognition of the other candidates who have ran for president before and spend their lives in Fox News' studio. The money from top donors should help solve that problem over the course of the campaign. Once that rises, I'd plop my money on Pawlenty getting the chance to face Obama in next year's election.