In politics, you find little sympathy for losers. Insiders point to Pawlenty's failure in a June CNN debate to attack former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for enacting a state universal health care plan. Pawlenty had dubbed the term "Obamneycare" to link Romney's health care law to President Barack Obama's. If Mr. "Minnesota Nice" could not go after Romney when the moment was ripe, politicos asked, perhaps he lacked the fire to go after President Obama, as well.
But I think T-Paw's biggest missed opportunity in a GOP primary debate came last Thursday. Pawlenty tried to establish straight-talk credentials by opposing ethanol subsidies in corn dog country. He also argued that his experience of governing a blue state with a Democratic legislature established that he could win on policy initiatives while working across the aisle.
When Fox News moderator Bret Baier asked all eight candidates to raise their hands if they would walk away from a deficit reduction deal with a ratio of $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in tax increases, they all raised their hands. You would expect that response from a purity candidate like Bachmann, Paul or businessman Herman Cain. But Pawlenty raised his hand. Ditto Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who had boasted that he was the only GOP candidate who supported the bipartisan debt deal signed by the president and supported by House Speaker John Boehner.
Here Pawlenty had a chance to distinguish himself as the only pragmatist in the race -- the only Republican willing not to walk away from a killer deal -- but he did not seize the moment.
Clearly, no Republican with national aspirations dares say he or she would raise any tax whatsoever, even though eliminating corporate welfare programs (for example, ethanol subsidies) technically represents a revenue increase -- even Pawlenty when he was running out of political capital and cash and desperate to stand out in the crowd.
Critics wonder why the media -- and candidates -- put so much weight on the $30-per-head stunt poll that has so little to do with the actual electorate. The outcome only adds further discredit to the exercise. The top two draws -- Bachmann and Paul -- generally are deemed to be unelectable in November 2012.
But it is not clear that the candidates would have answered differently in another state or at another debate before the Republican primary is held.
During a Minnesota bus tour stop Monday -- the White House denies it was a campaign event -- President Obama referred to the debate and the 8-zip response to a 10-1 cuts-to-taxes debt reduction deal. "None of them would take it," he crowed. "Think about that. I mean, that's just not common sense."
On Sunday, the president's public approval rating in the Gallup poll fell below 40 percent. For all his talk of hope and change, Obama simply does not know how to quell the fear and uncertainty that weigh down the U.S. economy.
And yet the GOP field has handed Obama a handy talking point. Brilliant.