HOWARD MEGDAL: Truthfully, I don’t think we learned much here, other than about Tim Pawlenty.
Mitt Romney looks the best when no one attacks him- that we already knew. His weakness is a vulnerability to attack. Will Michele Bachmann always stay positive, and refuse to go after Romney? Will some of the other candidates, looking for traction, do the same? Unlikely. How he responds, and looks on the other side, is still to be determined.
Bachmann, meanwhile, enjoyed the fruit of low expectations. After her SOTU-response debacle, her debate performance- little more than anti-Obama talking points and bio- came across as impressive by default. It is precisely this expectation level that will help Sarah Palin as well, naturally, should she enter the race.
But Pawlenty… I mean, he lost whatever chance he had at the nomination last night. He laid down his marker with that Obamneycare comment. It is Romney’s biggest vulnerability. Pawlenty has no space in this race without eating into Romney’s support. And he utterly, completely whiffed.
It didn’t even sound like a strategic decision, and if Pawlenty’s people know anything about the media, they’d have known he would be asked. He sounded unprepared for a question he could have used to make himself the story coming out of this debate. Instead, it was the death of his campaign.
Mitt Romney, who is no fool, had a look on his face that read: “I may not win this thing, but I know that guy sure isn’t.”
CHRIS PUMMER: There’s no doubt Pawlenty was the biggest loser on the stage Monday night. People will tolerate a lot of things from a politician in the name of ideology, but demonstrated cowardice isn’t one of them.
This was doubly damaging for Pawlenty because he is a candidate who has no feverish support. He is counting on voters gravitating towards him as other candidates become unpalatable or show just how they are unelectable. That means others must falter for his campaign’s feet to find purchase. Pawlenty doesn’t have to make the ground shake, but if he won’t differentiate himself, he’s got to at least be willing to exploit those other candidates’ faults.
The moment when he couldn’t look Romney in the eye and let his health care plan have it might not be one that resonates with a broad swath of GOP voters, but it certainly is one that will with the media, as well as the political insiders who are tuned in to this otherwise meaningless pony show and exert their own brand of influence on both voters and the press.
Once a narrative takes hold, it’s hard to change it. Romney is still struggling to fight flip-flopper labels slapped on him after changing positions on an array of issues before his 2008 presidential run. His health care reform problems are probably secondary to making conservative voters comfortable that he really is who he says he is today, not just parroting what GOP primary goers want to hear.
Now comes Pawlenty, who has assumed the tactic of running as an even bigger empty suit than Romney: aiming to be non-specific, just your generic conservative Republican.
That generic Republican still needs a spine.
Nobody seems to be knocked off their feet by Romney, who I think had the strongest showing. Not only did the frontrunner avoid being damaged, but in doing so burnished his growing reputation as the most reliable, most electable candidate in this field. Where he might have suffered in 2008 from being too generic, he can now thank Pawlenty for making his brand of vanilla seem so much more exotic.