Is debating one's record in a Presidential primary an unfair attack?

Yesterday, my blog partner Tina Korbe scolded Tim Pawlenty for making an argument that Michele Bachmann didn’t have executive experience or a record of Congressional accomplishment in her three terms in Washington as a comparison to his own experience as a governor in Minnesota.  Even though Tina says that Bachmann’s record in Congress is “admittedly a little thin,” she writes that Pawlenty looked thin-skinned for pointing it out.  My friend John Hinderaker wrote last night at Power Line that while he thinks that Pawlenty would make a better President than Bachmann, but that he “crossed a line” by pointing out why:

It is easy to sympathize with Pawlenty’s dilemma. I have supported both candidates’ campaigns financially and consider them both friends, but my own view is that Pawlenty would make a better president. (Either would be a hundred times better than Barack Obama.) Still, he is in a difficult situation, and did not improve it by going on the offense against his fellow Minnesotan. It is a fine line, sometimes, between touting one’s own credentials and denigrating those of a competitor, but Pawlenty crossed it. Unfortunately, most Iowa voters’ takeaway will be that Pawlenty is desperate because of his failure to gain ground in the polls. He will be well advised not to repeat his attack on Bachmann.

Holy buckets, as we say here in Minnesota!  Just what awful thing did Pawlenty say about Bachmann that crossed a line?  John and Tina offer the same quote, which John casts as taking the gloves off:

“Well, I like Congresswoman Bachmann. I’ve campaigned for her. I respect her, but her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent. It’s non-existent,” Pawlenty told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” …

“We’re not looking for folks who just have speech capabilities, we’re looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion,” Pawlenty said, touting his own experience as a two-term governor of Minnesota.

Pardon me, but this seems like exactly the kind of criticism most of us launched at Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008, and which we wished John McCain would have more often launched at Obama during the general election campaign.

John says he likes and respects both candidates, as do I, and both of us know the two Minnesota candidates a little.  I also get that Republican primary candidates should save their most passionate critical salvos for Obama.  However, in a primary, the candidates have to campaign against each other, too — and experience and records of accomplishment have to be fair game, especially as close as most of the candidates are on policy (with a couple of exceptions).  Experience matters, and one of Pawlenty’s strengths is his executive experience.

Republicans want to make the case in 2012 that Obama is incompetent thanks in part to a lack of previous executive experience and any track record of accomplishment in the Senate.  That case will be hard to make if Republicans nominate someone from the House with no executive experience and no track record of Congressional accomplishment.  That’s as true of Bachmann as it is of Thad McCotter and Ron Paul (and Herman Cain, for that matter), but those candidates aren’t threatening to win the Ames straw poll next month, which is why Pawlenty compared his experience to Bachmann’s.

Frankly, this is exactly what is supposed to happen in primaries — contrasting experience and track records, arguing over policy, and eventually nominating the most effective candidate for the general election.  Bachmann needs to have an answer for this valid criticism — and she did provide one.  The supporters of individual candidates (and the candidates themselves) have to get used to taking some heat in a primary campaign, because if they can’t handle it now, they’ll fold when it comes to a general election.