Tim Pawlenty struck the right note in the opening seconds of Thursday’s Fox News debate, praising President Obama for a “fine job” making “tough decisions” in the mission against Osama bin Laden before pivoting to criticism of the administration’s Libya policy.
But he seemed wimpy when asked about his critique of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care, saying he wouldn’t address it because Romney wasn’t there. “I’m not going to pick on him,” T-Paw said. Huh? It wasn’t like Romney was laid up in a hospital bed; he ducked the debate! Why agree to join second-tier candidates in the South Carolina event and then whiff when it comes to your chief competitor?
The former Minnesota governor sidestepped a Chris Wallace question on using one-time budget gimmicks, proclaiming he had balanced all his budgets (which all but one state is legally required to do) and offering a technical explanation for why he left a huge deficit to his successor. It was downhill from there.
I’m focusing on Pawlenty for the same reason the DNC peppered me with fact-check bulletins about him and the same reason he drew most of the tough questions: Unlike Herman Cain, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Gary Johnson, he has a strong shot at the GOP nomination. Although it was noteworthy to see three-fifths of the candidates (beyond Pawlenty and Santorum) calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan or strongly questioning the war.
As frontrunner-for-a-night, Pawlenty was asked whether creationism should be taught in schools. He said there should be room for the study of “intelligent design.” When Juan Williams told him he hadn’t answered the question, Pawlenty said the matter should be up to parents and local school districts.
Seconds later, Chris Wallace not only pressed him on his previous support for cap and trade legislation (now a dirty phrase in GOP circles), he played a radio ad in which Pawlenty strongly defended it. “I was wrong,” the candidate said. “It was a mistake and I’m sorry.” (By the way, the Fox panel asked sharp and tough questions.)
By the way, the DNC accidentally sent out some advice from Obama campaign aide Ben Labolt to several officials on an anti-Pawlenty release: “I’d lead on the pawlenty hit w/ leaving MN with a record deficit before the defensive stuff. Also think there’s a typo in the headline for the first section of bullets.”
Bottom line: Pawlenty took most of the flak but made no major mistake. And even if he had, who’s going to remember this debate a week from now?
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