At the beginning of 2011, I was convinced that Gov. Pawlenty possessed all the attributes -- social conservative, strong fiscal record, eminently likable -- to secure the Republican nomination. Frankly, after watching snippets of the debate last night, I think Pawlenty is this year's version of Fred Thompson: Conservative and excruciatingly unremarkable.
On Sunday, Pawlenty used Fox News Sunday as a platform to try the "Obamneycare" handle, referencing the obvious similarities between Mitt Romney's healthcare bill of 2006 and what eventually became Obamacare. It was simultaneously clever and accurate, potentially the first real criticism of frontrunner Mitt Romney that would actually stick.
But when John King teed it up for Pawlenty last night, the governor embarrassingly backtracked, saying that he was simply repeating Obama's words, and repeating his "I won't be the first to criticize" shtick, which is already getting plenty old.
Last cycle, Romney dealt with virtually an entire field -- John McCain and Mike Huckabee, in particular -- who openly disdained him. As a consequence, Romney fielded criticism from all sides. If the 2008 candidates had simply played nice as Pawlenty apparently intends to, I have no doubt Romney would have walked away with the nomination. But because politics is inherently bloodsport -- and because Romney is so fundamentally phony -- the criticisms stuck and Romney wound up a distant third.
I've resisted calling Romney a "front-runner," because I believe his core support in New Hampshire is soft and because I think Republican primarygoers can see right through his phoniness, but after last night it's clear there is no one in Romney's league. With Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour out of the picture, and Chris Christie still on the sidelines, there isn't a single candidate who should scare him. The nomination is Romney's to lose. Unless he starts to field attacks from serious rivals -- e.g., Pawlenty -- he will win the nomination in a cakewalk.
That brings me to my next point: If Pawlenty doesn't distinguish himself from the field, his modest fundraising portfolio and snooze-inducing persona will keep him buried as others -- Michelle Bachmann? Jon Huntsman? -- zoom by him. Once the great white hope of the anti-Romney movement, Pawlenty is starting to sink, and he has nothing but his own unremarkable candidacy to blame. Romney's organization and fundraising apparatus have him badly outgunned. If Pawlenty does not begin attacking Romney directly -- as McCain and Huckabee did in 2008 -- then he won't win a single state.
Last night was Pawlenty's opportunity -- sharing the stage with Romney for the first time -- to take the fight directly to his opponent. Instead, he cowered and backtracked, suggesting that he doesn't have the stomach for a brass-knuckles campaign. Romney is his principal opponent and a fundamentally dishonest one at that. If Pawlenty can't take the fight directly to Romney, then how can conservatives trust him to stand up to Obama in the general election?
(And by the way, this is a very legitimate concern, the dismissiveness of some pundits notwithstanding. The president is popular enough to survive a Republican opponent who plays nice, especially one like Pawlenty who voters have never seen before. The Republican nominee needs to attack Obama's demagoguery, his statist worldview and his general contempt for the rule of law.)
Every candidate -- even ridiculous ones like Herman Cain and Bachmann -- can articulate the basis for his or her candidacy. Pawlenty hasn't, because it isn't clear that he has anything to offer voters other than the fact that he doesn't offend any of the traditional Republican constituencies. The best thing anyone can say about Pawlenty is that he is a lot of voters' second choice.
At times, Pawlenty's political instincts -- going on the Daily Show, announcing his opposition to ethanol subsidies and Sunday's clever criticism of Romney on national TV -- are very good.
But at his core, Pawlenty appears to be a meek, mousey, conventional politician who can't stomach a fight and has very little to offer voters who are desperately searching for an alternative to his principal rival.