One of Pawlenty's problems, say strategists in Iowa and New Hampshire, is that he's not a forceful presence—"not tall timber," as one GOP veteran in New Hampshire put it. Pawlenty had a chance to show he was tough and capable of beating the GOP field, but he missed it.
Before the debate, Pawlenty criticized the health care plan Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts as "Obamneycare." He then scheduled a last-minute health care event in Manchester on the day of the debate to highlight the issue. Asked about this characterization at the debate, Pawlenty wouldn't continue the critique. He had to be forced into it by moderator King. "If you can't criticize Romney with your own words, how can you go toe-to-toe with Obama?" asked a Republican strategist. "And how can you not prepare for that answer?"
Later, Pawlenty gave strong answers on a question about labor unions and an answer about the role of religion in public life that he could put in a YouTube clip and send to his evangelical voters. But the buzz coming out of the debate was about how he flinched. Buzz is fortunately meaningless in a lot of cases, but not to the people who write campaign checks.
Pawlenty can recover with voters because they're in a shopping mood. In a recent Gallup poll, for example, where Romney was the front-runner with 24 percent of the vote, only three in 10 of those people said they are certain to stick with him. Pawlenty has time, but he'll need money to keep going and to compete. His pitch on the phone for the next two weeks is going to be harder after the debate performance.
Newt Gingrich was a pleasant presence on stage. Not his looks, mind you. Someone should tell him to stop scowling—at every cut-away shot, he looked like he was trying to melt an ice sculpture. What was refreshing was Gingrich's "cut the nonsense" aspect. While the other candidates were promising to repeal Obama's health care law, Gingrich pointed out that such promises were meaningless without majorities in Congress. He railed against politicians and the media for presenting political debates only in terms of "two catastrophic alternatives."
When asked about his controversial comments about Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare, Gingrich was honest, though he probably didn't help himself. "If you're dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down. Remember, we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us when we said don't do it. Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea." This is called common sense. It's also what someone who has thought about how a president actually governs might have to go about things. And, not incidentally, it leads to the conclusion that the approach being followed by House Republicans is the wrong one.
Like all early debates, this was not a night for soaring visions of America. There were the usual bromides, of course, but the candidates mostly focused on the nightmare of the Obama presidency. After two hours, it was a little repetitive and dreary. If the next moderator asks sunshine or rain, candidates who aspire to follow in Ronald Reagan's optimistic footsteps have to find a way to do more than bemoan the clouds.
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