Via the Laura Ingraham Show, skip ahead to 6:00 or so. Say what you will about him, but if Huck got a softball about RomneyCare last night like the one served up to T-Paw, he would have hit a line drive off of Mitt’s head. Said GOP consultant Alex Castellanos to Politico:

“Debates are competitions – they are alpha dog battles,” explained longtime GOP ad man Alex Castellanos. “To win one, you have to create what I call an ‘MOS,’ a moment of strength. Tim Pawlenty had a chance to get in the ring tonight with the heavyweight champion and create such a moment. He refused to enter the ring. It was like LeBron refusing to take the big shot [Sunday] night.”

Ed made the point earlier that it’s still early in the campaign, which is true of course from the perspective of the average voter. From the perspective of a major donor, though, whose cash is critical to attracting average voters down the road? Not so early after all. More from Romney fan David Frum, looking ahead:

Pawlenty’s failure is not the kind of stumble he can correct later. It goes to the core of the guy: offered the chance to confront Romney directly, he flinched. He did not look “nice.” He did not look like he was observing the 11th commandment. He looked uncertain and weak. He looked like a man fully aware that Romney would best him in a one-to-one discussion of healthcare policy…

After last night, Pawlenty’s fund-raising will sputter. He’s not exciting enough for ultra-base small donors. He does not look enough like a winner to mobilize big-dollar donors…

If [no one else gets in], I’d guess the future course of the race goes like this:

Bachmann wins Iowa. Romney wins New Hampshire. Absent Perry or Ryan, the field quickly empties out. The establishment rallies to Romney. The party follows just as it did in 1988, 1996 and 2000.

There’s a slim chance that Pawlenty could come back to win South Carolina in that scenario as some sort of compromise choice between centrists and social cons panicked at the thought of either Bachmann or Romney as nominee. But it’d be tough, and the double whammy of last night’s mistake is that the two people whom T-Paw most needed to perform badly both performed remarkably well by universal acclaim. He can come back from it, but at the next debate he’ll probably end up going over the top in attacking Romney to prove his “toughness, which will itself be dicey insofar as it risks making him look desperate.

Beyond that, Pawlenty has a basic strategic problem identified here by Ace in that he’s presenting himself as a clearly defined alternative to Romney and Obama rather than as the “not Romney” (and “not Obama”) in the race. That is to say, by proposing his own economic program early in the campaign and embracing the “truth-telling” gimmick on the stump (no ethanol subsidies for Iowa, etc), he’s framing the election as a choice between him and his competitors rather than as a referendum on Romney/RomneyCare and, ultimately, Obama. Which, considering that T-Paw’s big advantage is how bland and baggage-free he is, is exactly the opposite of what he’d like to be doing. The whole reason (well, much of the reason) that so many establishment Republicans are high on him is because he’s well positioned to keep the spotlight on Obama’s economic sins by blending into the background in the general. With the possible exception of John Thune, he’s as close to an ideal “not Obama” candidate as you can get. And yet his problem is that he’s so bland and baggage-free that he still hasn’t built the sort of name recognition or credibility with the base that he needs to threaten Romney, and given an easy opportunity to help himself in that regard that last night, he inexplicably passed. The last thing he should want to do, given his political strength as a cipher, is define himself, but because he can’t get traction in the polls, he’s been forced to do it via “truth-telling,” his economic plan, et al, which in turn gives Mitt and The One targets to shoot at. I don’t know how he resolves that dilemma of wanting to be “not Romney/Obama” and needing to be Tim Pawlenty, at least for the moment. Presumably, if/when he starts to move in the polls, he’ll shift to a mainly negative campaign against Mitt and then just stick with that for the duration. It’s his best shot, but if Perry gets in and goes on the attack against Mitt, thus becoming the chief “not Romney” in the race, how will T-Paw distinguish himself then?