Rule #1 for the Republican candidates in last night's CNN/WMUR debate surely was to do oneself no harm. It's virtually impossible to win the entire campaign by one good early debate performance, but a huge mistake could end it. Every candidate except Tim Pawlenty either held their position last night or, in the case of Michele Bachmann, gained a little bit. Pawlenty, on the other hand, may be the only one who got wounded by his own hand.
Of all the candidates on stage Michele Bachmann had among the least to lose and the most to gain, due to pretty low expectations. She took advantage of the stage and came off as a far more credible candidate than she ever has before. She failed to say anything too loopy and looked directly at the camera and the audience, not away in some far off distance as she did during her ill-produced State of the Union response. See, low expectations.
Before the debate, Tim Pawlenty's compelling story made me the most nervous about his potential. The son of a milk truck driver who bowls for fun and has two daughters with his wife of twenty years, he smells of good solid Midwesternism. Maybe he is not that exciting of a guy, but he could easily point a finger at President Obama and say, "We tried Mr. Excitement and how did that work out for ya? I'm a serious guy for serious times." Might not work, but it's a decent play.
Then, last night TPaw, as some Republicans have taken to calling him, did the worst thing a candidate for President could do. He folded under the heat. On Fox News Sunday this week, he leveled a good solid hit on Romney's glass policy jaw by dubbing Obama's health care plan ObamneyCare because of the similarities it has to the plan Romney passed in Massachusetts. John King set him up to deliver the roundhouse blow for the nation to see mano-a-mano, but instead of looking Romney in the eye and swinging, Pawlenty turned into a boiled noodle and went all soft. He declined the hit and went after Obama instead.
It is certainly understandable why a candidate would choose not to come off so negatively in his first major introduction to the voters, but why start some in the TV studio if you don't want none on the debate stage?
You can be a lot of things when you run for president -- slippery with your facts, loose with your zipper, overindulgent with the booze most of your adult life or in possession of a thin resume -- but you can't be weak.
Like Pawlenty, none of the other candidates on stage chose to attack Mitt Romney, the man leading the pack. So instead of fighting off his challengers, Romney stood there and was... just boring. Watching him, I couldn't help but be reminded of John Kerry. Kerry was a good man with solid credentials on national security, the most important issue of the 2004 campaign, but he was a little too stiff and had some unfortunate policy position changes that made him a bad candidate in the end.
The good news for Tim Pawlenty is that only the professional campaign people, media and the obsessed partisans are paying attention this early. Despite this gaffe, he has time to turn it around. Barack Obama was a miserable campaigner in 2007. Remember the debate when the African American civil rights lawyer lost the Howard University debate on civil rights issues to Hillary Clinton? Obama needed practice and by the time most voters started paying attention he was ready.
The bad news is that we may have seen a real flaw in Tim Pawlenty last night. TPaw may lack what any successful candidate for president needs: the desire and ability to go for the kill when his opponent's jugular is nakedly and temptingly throbbing before him.
If Tim Pawlenty won't rhetorically punch Mitt Romney in the face on a debate stage, how can we trust him to mount a daring mission to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden if he had to?
Oh yeah, we won't have to worry about that. Barack Obama already did it.