Byron York

As for gaffes, Pawlenty's big mistake -- again, this seems like something from a bygone era -- was that he failed to back up his charge that Romney's health plan in Massachusetts was the equivalent of "Obamneycare." Pawlenty coined the word during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday" on June 12 and then backed off at a GOP debate the next day when he had the chance to criticize Romney face-to-face. That was thought to be a critical error at the time. But given everything that has happened since, it doesn't seem like a capital offense today.

But suppose Pawlenty had stayed in. Would it have mattered? A recent Des Moines Register poll found that just 5 percent of respondents said they would support Pawlenty if he were still running. Of course, he's been out of the picture since August. Had he been campaigning steadily since then, while other candidates faltered, the picture might be different.

Random chats with Iowa voters suggest Pawlenty would have earned a second chance. "Absolutely," said one woman at a Rick Santorum event in Fairfield, Iowa, when asked whether she would consider Pawlenty if he were still running. "I met him, and he had the best conservative record. He's a little dry, but I thought that he was a great candidate."

"Definitely," said another woman. "I liked what he had to say. I was shocked when he dropped out. I thought it was too soon."

It's that kind of opinion that drives some Pawlenty associates nuts. "If Newt Gingrich is getting a second look, Pawlenty certainly would have, too," says a second insider. "He would be in contention today."

But he's not. After his I-regret-it remarks on public radio, Pawlenty has stopped talking about what might have been and has turned into an effective advocate for Romney. But just because he's not talking about it doesn't mean he's not thinking about it. Given all that's happened, how could he not?

Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner