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First GOP presidential debate: Was Pawlenty too 'Minnesota nice'?

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, considered a top-tier GOP candidate for president, didn't go after the absent Mitt Romney over health care during a GOP debate Thursday night in South Carolina, but he did condemn the Obama reform.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2011

Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, speaks to a gathering of Tea Party supporters at the Hyatt Regency in Greenville, S.C., on Thursday, May 5. A handful of Republican hopefuls were in Greenville Thursday for the first GOP debate of the 2012 presidential race.

Richard Shiro/AP

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Washington

It had the feel of a spring training game – a familiar face or two, plus some new talent just hoping to get noticed. Most of the heavy hitters weren’t even there.

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Still, the first Republican debate of the 2012 presidential cycle, sponsored by Fox News and held in Greenville, S.C., had its revealing moments. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the only candidate among the five considered to have top-tier potential, faced the highest stakes as he seeks to build name recognition. But when given the opportunity to attack a top rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on one of his biggest vulnerabilities – a state health-care reform that served as a model for President Obama’s – he demurred.

“Well, Governor Romney is not here to defend himself, and so I'm not going to pick on him or the position that he took in Massachusetts,” Mr. Pawlenty said, buffing his “Minnesota nice” credentials.

Pawlenty touted the approach he took on health care during his two terms as governor: “empower individuals and families to makes choices that are best for them,” and provide financial help to those who need it. He saved his most pungent language for Mr. Obama, arguing that his reform created a “top-down, government-run, centralized, limited-choice, limited-option system.”

True, the 2012 election will be a referendum on Obama, but to rise to the top of the GOP heap, one has to beat the other Republicans. Thus far Pawlenty is polling in low single digits, but it’s early.

When will we know who's in?

Aside from Romney, other likely or possible contenders who were MIA included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, billionaire Donald Trump, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Mr. Gingrich is expected to announce his exploratory committee next week. Governor Daniels is expected to make a decision by the end of May. Representative Bachmann has said she’ll decide by July. Mr. Trump will let us know by early June. Mr. Huntsman also appears poised for an announcement soon.

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