Bob Franken

King Features Column

(As usual, the arrangement with the syndicators allows the appearance of these columns here a week after their newspaper release)


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Tim Pawlenty has gotten a case of the “shouldas,” as in telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity “I should have been much more clear during the debate.” The statement follows the criticism that he was fainthearted when facing off on CNN against Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates.

The beginning of his saga was nasty enough. On “Fox News Sunday,” he had taken a shot at the Massachusetts health-care plan that was Mitt Romney’s creation as governor of the state, and model for the hated “Obamacare” that Romney is now repudiating every chance he gets as he disowns his public record. Pawlenty called it “Obamneycare.” But the day after, when he had Mitt in the palm of his hands, standing right there, T-Paw was too polite, the detractors charge.

The frustrated moderator, John King, even tried to goad him, asking: “If it was Obamneycare on ‘Fox News Sunday,’ why is it not Obamneycare here with the governor right there?”

Pawlenty refused to take the bait, depriving us all of the type of sound bite that makes these encounters memorable. One of the best examples is the unforgettable moment in the 1988 vice presidential debate. Democratic candidate Lloyd Bentsen confronted Dan Quayle over a comparison to JFK and scornfully lowered the boom with: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

Given the accusation that Mitt Romney has spent so much time racing to the far right and away from his record on health care and the likes of gun control and abortion, how magical it would have been if Pawlenty had looked to Romney and said: “I knew Mitt Romney. You are no Mitt Romney.”

Alas, it didn’t happen, and now Pawlenty is backtracking, after backtracking from his criticism of Romney’s backtracking. One explanation of his squeamishness is that he has a bad case of “Minnesota nice,” given how the state prides itself in good manners. The problem is that good manners just don’t cut it in a presidential campaign.

For proof in fact, we need look no further than, well, Minnesota. Michele Bachmann is the representative from the state’s 6th Congressional District and now another officially announced GOP presidential candidate. Her rhetoric is anything but Minnesota nice — or anywhere nice. She flings around terms like “un-American” at the drop of a hat. Her embrace of teaching “intelligent design” along with evolution at the Republican showcase in New Orleans is cleverly designed to make her the fittest candidate to survive in the ironically Darwinian realm of religious conservative politics.

She’s also trouncing Pawlenty in the latest polls. Rasmussen has her riding her low expectations in the debate and shooting up to second in the rankings of likely GOP voters, the favorite of 19 percent. She’s still way behind Romney at 33 percent, but far ahead of Pawlenty at 6 percent. It certainly would be understandable if he was considering a steroid injection to help him come up with a more muscular campaign. Maybe some “roid rage” would help.

As for the front-runner, Romney better watch his back with the likes of Bachmann roaring up from behind, ready to trip him up. Actually, he seems to be stumbling on his own, attempting to present himself — a silver spoon at the Silver Spoon Cafe — as just a regular guy. It’s awkward. At a Florida coffee shop, his joke that he, too, is “unemployed” landed with a real thud.

Pawlenty is trying to beat him at his own game, presenting himself as the true conservative with the most substance and experience. Pawlenty “shoulda” known that civility doesn’t work. Now he has to work hard to overcome his image as Timid Tim.

© 2011 Bob Franken

Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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