How Tim Pawlenty Blew It On The Biggest Stage Of His Career

The anatomy of a debate flub.
Tim Pawlenty (right) didn't swing and whiff against Mitt Romney (left). He just didn't swing at all.
Tim Pawlenty (right) didn't swing and whiff against Mitt Romney (left). He just didn't swing at all.

It seems odd to recall now, but former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was fairly well-positioned to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

He had been on the short list to be the party's vice presidential nominee in 2008. He was a Republican governor of a Democratic-leaning state. He had crafted an image as a blue-collar conservative. And he had hired the most sought-after campaign manager in the business.

But Pawlenty’s campaign never really took off and ended soon after it began.

In the latest episode of "Candidate Confessional," Pawlenty said he flamed out quickly because he didn’t have enough money and couldn’t settle on a sharp message that resonated with the public.

The other issue was that Pawlenty, to borrow a hackneyed term, was too Minnesota Nice. Nothing better exemplifies this than the moment that has come to define his candidacy: his inability to directly attack GOP front-runner Mitt Romney during a debate.

While the moment itself has taken its place in the annals of campaign flubs -- "I just botched the answer," Pawlenty said -- the behind-the-scenes story is less known.

Pawlenty told "Candidate Confessional" that he came up with the idea of using the term “Obamneycare” as a way of pointing out that Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts had been the model for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act -- which, of course, conservatives have attempted to repeal countless times. His staff liked the awkward term. He had tried it out in a couple of speeches and a Sunday morning interview.

Pawlenty planned to use it again during the debate. But the question ended up coming from a member of the audience -- not the moderator -- which complicated those plans. In debate prep, political consultants had instructed the governor that he had to do three things with each answer: 1) tailor his response to the person asking the question; 2) attack Obama; and 3) get around to answering the question, presumably by attacking Romney. He had to do all three things within the given time limits and look natural doing it.

As Pawlenty worked his way through the three steps, the moderator, CNN's John King, started to grow audibly impatient.

“I wasn’t through my three-point checklist yet," Pawlenty recalled. “[King] and I get in this back and forth. I’m off my three-point, you know, checklist and I should have just blurted out -- you know, yelled in the microphone -- yes, damnit, Obamneycare!"

Instead, Pawlenty blinked. A lot. He repeated his criticisms of Obama, but he never did bellow the phrase. He came across looking, well, too Minnesota Nice.

In the moment, Pawlenty didn’t fully appreciate how badly his flub stood out.

“I thought the answer wasn’t great but I didn’t think it was awful," he said. "But I remember during a break I was going to the bathroom or back to the dressing room for something ... I remember Nick [Ayers], my campaign manager, who I like a lot, was ashen standing back by one of the doors."

"And he’s like, 'You know you gotta fix this,'" Pawlenty said. "I’m like, ‘Fix what?’ He’s like, 'You know, the Obamneycare answer.'"

But the topic didn't come up again. Instead, pundits and viewers were left with the image of Pawlenty hesitating to attack the man who would become the GOP nominee.

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