Tim Pawlenty ended his campaign for president last month after placing third in the Ames straw poll. At the time, Elephant Watcher criticized Pawlenty's campaign for failing to understand what type of candidate Pawlenty was (or should have been): The last man standing, a consensus candidate who emerged after his rivals self-destructed.
Recent events have made it clear that Pawlenty missed a valuable opportunity. After Rick Perry crashed and burned in the debates, the search has been on for a suitable replacement. The Anti-Romney forces have been desperate to find someone capable of preventing Romney from winning. Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, and now Perry are judged not up to the task. Chris Christie is formidable, but he may not run. Rick Santorum is, for now, not on the radar. Who's left?
If Pawlenty were still in the race, it's likely that attention would have shifted in his direction. He was considered more electable and more conservative than the alternatives who didn't quit. Despite being mocked for his low poll numbers, Pawlenty would now be considered prominent by comparison: Pawlenty always polled much better in Iowa than Santorum and Cain. Even the Ames straw poll, which led to Pawlenty's quitting early, had Pawlenty with a sizable lead over Santorum, Cain--and Romney.
Thus, Pawlenty would have been next in line to win Iowa. He needed Bachmann and Perry to crash, and they did. He would have faced Romney, who is only half-heartedly participating in Iowa. Pawlenty would have been the favorite to win Iowa, and maybe the nomination and the presidency.
Pawlenty's mistake should be a lesson for future candidates. The primary season is very long, and the dynamics of the race tend to change. To take advantage, a candidate must stay in the race. Perhaps in future primaries, candidates will be less willing to drop out--at least until the Iowa Caucus. It makes little sense to drop out in response to a third-place finish in the Ames straw poll.