“One way to arrive at Pawlenty is through process of elimination. I’ve argued many times that Mitt Romney is fatally wounded. If he lacked any serious competition at all, he could possibly—maybe—consolidate establishment support and fend off attacks on his health care plan. But, in a contested race, he simply has no answer for attacks on Romneycare. Romney is finished

“In the end, Pawlenty’s calling card is an ability to appeal to white working-class voters. Pawlenty calls himself a ‘Sam’s Club Republican.’ The phrase has also been used by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in urging the party to adopt a more working-class friendly platform. But the coincidence between the two uses of the phrase ends there. Pawlenty does not dissent in any way from the party’s plutocratic platform—his notion of working class appeal lies purely in the realm of personal style. This, too, places Pawlenty squarely in the George W. Bush mold of nominee, a reasonably (though not wildly) talented pol who uses charisma to demonstrate working-class authenticity while reliably toeing the party line.”

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“In fact, to any reasonable person, Romney’s reversals on such questions didn’t raise questions about his sincerity as much as answer them. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for someone who really admired Romney’s record as a businessman, or who really couldn’t stand Obama, to overlook Romney’s current right-wing stands on abortion and gay rights. But his sudden, convenient and implausibly explained reversals on these issues say something about his character that you can’t flip away quite so easily…

“Private sector healthcare can’t work without some sort of mandate that healthy people as well as sick ones carry insurance. As a smart businessman, not just some dumb politician, Romney surely grasps this point. Nevertheless, he says that the situation requiring an individual mandate was ‘unique to Massachusetts’ rather than — more accurately — a universal requirement imposed by mathematics.

“To me, these issues and the way Romney has handled them are characterological, unchangeable at this point, and stamp him as ethically unqualified to be entrusted with the presidency.”

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“The best bet for Barbour is finding a way to coalesce all of the dissatisfaction with Romney over the former Massachusetts governor’s health care plan and evolving positions on social issues. But the best way for Romney to stop Barbour is to paint Barbour as a cartoon version of a Deep South political boss with some unsavory associations. And his appearance will make Romney’s job easier.

“That’s why it may benefit Barbour to start taking his knocks early and deprive Romney of shock value later on.

“‘The governor is going to have to talk about (his lobbying) and he’s going to have to talk about it at length,’ said the second adviser. ‘And he’s going to have to keep talking about it in the context of a career that includes effective leadership and tireless advocacy for conservative causes.’

“‘And if other people want to make this a discussion of past records, that’s a discussion I suspect the governor would be very welcome to have.'”

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“In many ways, Romney still looks like an extraordinarily weak frontrunner, if he’s the frontrunner at all — defined by his flip-flops, dogged by the resemblance between his Massachusetts health care bill and Obamacare, and unable to break 20 percent in the polls. But the establishment’s preferred candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels, possibly in that order, and then perhaps Haley Barbour as well — are all sitting on the sidelines (another possible establishment pick, Jon Thune, has already taken himself out of the running), and if the economy keeps growing and the president’s approval numbers stay close to 50 percent, they may decide to stay there for the duration. Meanwhile, the strongest populist candidate, Mike Huckabee, might not run either — which could leave a Republican field of Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, possibly Jon Huntsman, possibly Sarah Palin (though I’m betting against it), and then some folks like Rick Santorum and John Bolton filling out the debate stage. That’s a very weak field, and a race that Romney, for all his own weaknesses, stands a very good chance of winning…

“The last time the Republicans made big gains in the mid-term elections and then faced a vulnerable-but-formidable Democratic incumbent two years later, they found themselves choosing between Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan in the primaries, while figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (now there would have been a primary campaign!) stayed on the sidelines. It could happen again: Just because the Republicans seem to need a better candidate than Mitt Romney doesn’t mean they’ll get one.”

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