Tim Pawlenty takes flak over GOP debate. Was his showing so tragic?

Tim Pawlenty declined to be the attack dog against front-runner Mitt Romney in Monday's GOP presidential debate. Critics assailed him, but there are risks to going negative so early in the race.

Joel Page/Reuters
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty takes the stage during a photo opportunity before the start of the first New Hampshire debate of the 2012 campaign at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire June 13.

It’s the day after, and Tim Pawlenty is taking grief for not attacking front-runner Mitt Romney over health care during the New Hampshire presidential debate Monday night.

Mr. Pawlenty, the former two-term governor of Minnesota, had served up a clever slam against “Romneycare” the day before on “Fox News Sunday.” Noting that Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, had created the model for President Obama’s health-care reform, he (or one of his advisers) invented a new term – “Obamneycare” – a sort of two-headed monster that forces Americans (and already, Massachusettsans) to purchase health insurance whether they want to or not.

But on Monday, when debate moderator John King asked Pawlenty “why Obamneycare,” he demurred. He didn’t look at Romney, and he chose instead to focus on what he did in Minnesota rather than go after the front-runner for the GOP nomination. It was all Mr. King could do to get Pawlenty even to utter the word “Obamneycare” again.

“Pawlenty’s Manchester meltdown,” the National Journal headline blared. “It was an opportunity missed – more painfully, an opportunity virtually everyone noticed, making the damage all the worse,” the news site opined.

Really? Everyone played nice Monday night. No one went after the front-runner, and Romney himself was nice back. When given an opportunity to attack Pawlenty’s recently unveiled economic plan, which posits a 5 percent growth rate many economists view as overly optimistic, Romney answered that Pawlenty has “the right instincts.”

“The ideas Tim described, those are in the right wheelhouse,” Romney said.

True, Romney and Pawlenty are not on an equal footing. Romney has established himself as the early front-runner, especially in the all-important New Hampshire primary. His fundraising is unparalleled in the Republican field. Pawlenty still polls in mid-single digits and can’t hope to match Romney’s money, his own campaign acknowledges.

But imagine if Pawlenty had gone negative, and been the only one to do so. Many voters still don’t know him, and if he had stuck out as the only negative candidate on stage toward a fellow contender, that might have set a sour impression in voters’ minds. Remember President Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

“He was determined not to have an internal GOP fight, and keep the focus on Obama,” says former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a co-chairman of the Pawlenty campaign. “I understand he took flak, but his motivation was right. If the Republicans had gotten into a food fight over Romney and health care, a lot of Republicans wouldn’t have liked that either.”

Pawlenty himself took to the airwaves Tuesday morning to defend himself.

“I think what you saw last night is a party that's united on the understanding that we need to get Barack Obama out of the White House,” Pawlenty said on the CBSEarly Show.” “He's had his chance, his policies aren't working.... There will be some differences amongst Republicans, as well. But last night the focus was on the president.”

Of course, Pawlenty is going to have to do something – and soon – to break out of the pack. And now that Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party leader and fellow Minnesotan, has jumped into the race, the heat is on. She could do well in neighboring Iowa, squelching Pawlenty’s hopes of using Iowa as a springboard.

In New Hampshire, some Republicans argue that Pawlenty could have engaged Romney on his health-care reform without coming across as overly negative.

“For Pawlenty, it was not a take charge, ‘I’m paying for this microphone’ moment that suggests strength,” says Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “It was a predictable question, something they could have and should have prepared for. Pawlenty easily could have made his critique of Romney’s health-care plan and done so without looking like it was an attack.”

Mr. Cullen adds: “He desperately needs to establish himself as the mainstream alternative to Romney and given an opportunity to do that last night, he failed.”

So when will Pawlenty make his move? Stay tuned.

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