MINNEAPOLIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As his campaign for U.S. president fails to take flight, some donors to Republican hopeful Tim Pawlenty are having second thoughts.
“Maybe I jumped the gun on that,” William Curry III, a Wyoming retiree, said of his $500 donation to Pawlenty.
The former Minnesota governor, who faces off against seven Republican contenders in a televised debate on Thursday evening, needs a stand-out performance to propel him from the back of the crowded field.
His poll numbers are mired in single digits and even party strategists say he comes across as just too nice.
The next few days in Iowa, a state with early influence in any U.S. election, will be crucial for Pawlenty, culminating in Saturday’s straw poll where he faces a big test against Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who is a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Interviews with more than a dozen donors to Pawlenty found two camps — the disillusioned and those backers still holding out hope their man, who held city and state offices in Minnesota before becoming governor, can break out of the pack.
Texas banking executive Jeff Austin III is also wondering about the wisdom of the $1,000 check he wrote. Pawlenty “has an outstanding record” as a two-term governor but his message has been lost, Austin said.
“Tim Pawlenty used innovative and conservative leadership to balance the state’s budget, cut spending, reform health care and improve schools without raising taxes,” the candidate’s website says of his record in Minnesota.
After the last Republican debate, Pawlenty was criticized for not seizing a chance to rip into rival Mitt Romney over a healthcare plan Romney helped create when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Pawlenty raised $4.3 million in the most recent quarter, on par with other Republicans jockeying to run against President Barack Obama in November 2012 but lagging well behind the $18 million brought in by Romney.
In another sign of the fitful state of the Republican field, a report released on Thursday found more than 300 donors hedged their bets in the second quarter by giving to more than one candidate.
In recent days, the Pawlenty campaign has been aggressively courting funders.
“They are hitting their donors very, very hard,” said a business owner from South St. Paul, Minnesota, Pawlenty’s hometown.
That donor, who asked not to be named, gave more than $1,000 to Pawlenty’s campaign but said he is waiting for it to gather steam before contributing any more.
Others are openly considering new candidates. Austin is intrigued by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who said on Thursday he will officially jump into the race on Saturday.
In the Iowa straw poll, many analysts said Pawlenty must win or be a strong second to keep the momentum he needs to get enough funding.
The campaign suspended Iowa television ads this week. Spokesman Alex Conant said it was because Pawlenty wants to spend on more direct voter contact.
Of the $4.3 million Pawlenty raised, he was left with $2 million — showing he is using up cash more quickly than many others.
“The challenge is they have invested so much in Iowa for the straw poll, so they could easily be completely out of primary money,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Several backers who gave the maximum $2,500 donation cited the 2008 Republican race, where eventual primary winner John McCain’s campaign imploded early and then came back with a win in New Hampshire and eventually the nomination.
“For any candidate to gain traction, they have to prove they can win,” said Joseph Schmuckler, a Pawlenty donor who works in investment management and bundled funding for McCain’s 2008 bid. “But I think this is a long haul.”
Editing by John O'Callaghan