WASHINGTON — He’s been accused of chickening out. One media wag wondered why he lobbed a grenade, only to throw himself on top of it. Another likened the situation to basketball star Lebron James refusing to take a shot in a crucial game.
Until Monday night, the worst slam against Tim Pawlenty was that he was boring. On Tuesday, some Republicans were questioning his fitness to be president after the former Minnesota governor dropped his clever line of attack against presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney’s health-care record during a national debate.
“The debate focus was about Barack Obama and his failure as president,” Pawlenty, in damage control mode, said Tuesday on CNN.
The presidential hopeful made the rounds of the early morning talk shows to defend why he failed to repeat the pithy barb he delivered over the weekend when he used the term “Obamneycare” to liken Romney’s health-care overhaul in Massachusetts six years ago to Obama’s much-maligned federal legislation.
“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,” he said on CBS’s The 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.”
His spokesman suggested John King, the CNN journalist who moderated the New Hamsphire debate, was trying to incite a family feud when he pointedly asked Pawlenty why he wouldn’t repeat the zinger he’d used a day earlier on the Sunday talk-show circuit.
“King wanted more of an intra-party squabble between all the candidates,” Alex Conant said.
“But we really came to this debate with our focus on Obama and wanting to make the case that Governor Pawlenty had the experience vision and record to be able to compete with President Obama and beat President Obama.”
But does he? Some Republicans are chagrined by Pawlenty’s reluctance to go head-to-head with Romney over an issue that makes many of the party faithful nervous — the fact that Obama has said he was inspired by Romney’s public health care legislation in Massachusetts when he pushed forward with a similar federal plan.
“You don’t have to take my word for it. You can take President Obama’s word for it. President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare,” Pawlenty said Sunday on Fox News, taking direct aim at his rival for the presidency.
“And so, we now have the same features — essentially the same features. The president’s own words is that he patterned, in large measure, Obamacare after what happened in Massachusetts. And what I don’t understand is they both continue to defend it.”
A day later, and Pawlenty was behaving like a man who’d drunkenly blurted out something wildly inappropriate at a cocktail party.
“Your rival is standing right there,” King said. “If it was Obamneycare on ’Fox News Sunday,’ why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?”
Pawlenty suggested his fire was meant for Obama, not Romney, when he coined the phrase.
“President Obama is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program …. And so using the term ’Obamneycare’ was a reflection of the president’s comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.”
The speculation has been rife ever since, with some wondering whether Romney’s team approached Pawlenty at some point after his Sunday remarks and suggested he’d be his first choice as running mate in 2012.
Others are questioning whether Pawlenty has the toughness to go after Obama in a presidential campaign if he couldn’t attack Romney in an early Republican debate.
“I suspect Pawlenty and Romney don’t have any particular animosity towards each other, but as far as discussing the ticket, that seems really premature,” said Fergus Cullen, the onetime head of the New Hampshire Republican Party and now a political consultant.
“But his failure to seize the moment is completely perplexing, so I can understand the speculation. John King teed it up for him, it was a predictable question that could have been anticipated, rehearsed, practised. It didn’t call for a nasty, aggressive attack. But clearly he decided he was not going to engage in direct criticism of Romney, and that was a mistake.”
Indeed, Pawlenty blew a golden opportunity to raise his profile in the minds of Republican primary voters who are distrustful of Romney.
“There’s a primary within the primary, and everyone needs to emerge as an alternative to Romney,” Cullen said. “Pawlenty desperately needs to distinguish himself, and he had an opportunity to do it and he didn’t take it.”
Jason Miller, a Rudy Giuliani campaign aide in 2008 now working as a media consultant, told Politico.com that Pawlenty’s move suggests a weakness that won’t sit well with voters.
“Republican primary voters are looking for a presidential candidate who’s going to take the fight directly to President Obama,” he said.
“If you’re not comfortable following through on a criticism of one of your primary opponents in person, why should voters think you’ll be able to man up and follow through on a criticism of the president when you face him in the general election?”