On the surface, Tim Pawlenty's announcement Sunday that he's dropping out of the GOP presidential nomination race might seem like good news for front-runner Mitt Romney.
Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, was seen early on as an alternative to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
But that's not the way it worked out.
Pawlenty's surprising early departure after a third-place showing in the Iowa Straw Poll, when he was easily bested by Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, is a sure sign that Romney's front-runner status in the race for the GOP presidential nomination will be short lived.
The very fact that Pawlenty, a smooth-talking, hard-to-pinpoint politician, made no emotional connection with voters at a time in America when political emotions are running high, spells trouble for Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor is rich -- worth between $190 million and $250 million, his campaign says -- and he always looks in public like advertisements in men's health and fashion magazines -- but otherwise, he's missing that "zesty thing."
That "zesty thing" that helped newly-announce GOP presidential nomination candidate Rick Perry bring a crowd of 30,000 to its feet at a prayer event in Houston, Texas last week. That "zesty thing" that landed Bachmann, the straw poll winner, on the cover of Newsweek magazine this week, albeit in a wild-eyed editorial hack-job photo.
Pawlenty got organized, and he got focused in Iowa. He was raising money, and establishing himself as a formidable GOP candidate. It's just that voters didn't really care.
They looked, but they didn't listen.
They liked Pawlenty at first glance. But when they had to take a deeper, harder look, they weren't so politically moved.
Pawlenty, by his own admission, says he offered "a rational, established, credible strong record of results...But I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different."
Are you listening, Mitt Romney? Pawlenty might as well have been talking to you, the GOP's invisible front-runner.
In the era of the Tea Party and a resurgence of the evangelical voice, Romney is a bit too nondescript for this presidential race, where passion seems to drive success from the grassroots up -- as it did in the mid-term elections, as it did for Democratic President Barack Obama.
Pawlenty had the look and the experience and he said many of the right things. It's just that nobody seemed to care.
And that's why his withdrawal from the GOP race might as well be speaking for Romney at the same time. Romney has only been in the GOP lead because it's early.
Bachmann, for all her oddities, has at least proven through her Iowa Straw Poll victory that GOP voters want something different than the norm. She's certainly that -- different from the norm.
Rick Perry, the Texas governor who announced his entrance into the GOP presidential nomination race on Saturday in South Carolina, fits the same description, at least for current times. It's been a while, after all, since a Republican has been able to elicit passionate support across multiple conservative factions the way Perry does.
He can win moderates. He can win evangelicals. And he can win fiscal conservatives.
Pawlenty could not do that. Thus, he's out of the race from almost the start.
Neither can Romney. And that's why he likely won't be the GOP front-runner for long.
Like Pawlenty, Romney could be out of the race before you know it.