GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- I have seldom seen the men and women so focused on the totemic power of a fake word as they were focused on "Obamneycare." It was clear yesterday and today, on the trail, that Tim Pawlenty would not spend too much more time on the word he coined when asked about Romney's health care record. But John King seemed almost heartbroken that Pawlenty wouldn't repeat the attack.
"He was focused on his economic plan and how to grow the economy at 5 percent and how to reform entitlements," said Pawlenty's campaign manager Nick Ayers in the spin room. "The press all day yesterday in New Hampshire were focused on the Obamneycare comment while the governor was focused on his economic plan. If you watch the first 15 minutes of the debate, what you'll see is that we started it with all the candidates starting with Gov. Pawlenty's plan to get people back to work. Gov. Romney said that Gov. Pawlenty's instincts were absolutely correct."
Not enough! Reporters wanted answers on the fake word.
"The answer that he gave is not what John King wanted," said Ayers. "Look, I understand the press. You all have a job to do, and the governor has a different role to play."
I tried to clear this up. What's the point of attacking "Romneycare?" Is the point that Romney made one mistake or that he made a defining mistake that says something about what sort of president he'd make.
"The point is, and what the governor's point was yesterday, is that everyone's got a few clunkers in their records. He continues to defend it."
This is just one debate, but I see a problem there. If Romneycare is only a clunker, it's on the level of Pawlenty's old cap and trade position. That's quite a downgrade. The take of someone who totally writes off Romney, based on "Romneycare," is that he thinks health care is enough of a right that people should be compelled to buy it. Maybe he wants to repeal Obamacare, and he doesn't want to impose a federal mandate, but when push came to shove, he put a mandate into effect. For the Romney-hater that's a career-defining error, not just one mistake.
Romney's team was already absorbing the spin: He and Bachmann won, Pawlenty missed a shot. Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told me that candidates and voters seemed to be focusing on repealing Obamacare -- a test Romney can pass as he moves on to stronger issues.
"One reason I'm so bullish on Mitt this time is that I think he's finding his moment," said former Sen. Jim Talent, a Romney surrogate. "He's talking about the economy and he's been talking about it. Remember, in 2007, the surge in Iraq became the issue, and that benefited John McCain. I think you're seeing something similar happen here with the economy and Mitt."
This was the main storyline. Something else I noticed in the spin room was a surge of interest in Michele Bachmann. Her campaign team was swarmed (she skipped the room herself), and the very first thing DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse mentioned when asked about the debate was that "Bachmann's apparently burning up Twitter."