Tim Pawlenty’s puzzling decision at Monday’s debate to abandon a new line of attack on Mitt Romney’s health care record is prompting fresh doubts among members of his own party about his readiness to confront the GOP frontrunner.
One day after Pawlenty linked Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan with the federal health reform law as “Obamneycare” in a nationally televised interview, the former Minnesota governor retreated from the sharp critique at the first debate featuring Romney.
Pawlenty’s decision to back down — coming after his campaign promoted the original assault — was met with a mix of derision and bewilderment among veteran GOP strategists who are not committed to any of the candidates.
Few could recall another example of a candidate unveiling an attack in one high-profile forum, as Pawlenty did on “Fox News Sunday,” only to attempt to put the gun back in the holster in another such setting so soon afterward.
“Debates are competitions — they are alpha dog battles,” explained longtime GOP ad man Alex Castellanos. “To win one, you have to create what I call an ‘MOS,’ a moment of strength. Tim Pawlenty had a chance to get in the ring tonight with the heavyweight champion and create such a moment. He refused to enter the ring. It was like LeBron refusing to take the big shot [Sunday] night.”
At the Christian Science Monitor, however, Linda Feldmann takes a different view:
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 CBS “Early 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.”