In debate rehearsals, Pawlenty had not whiffed at the question: He’d coined a couple of zingers that his staff liked very much. Afterward, he couldn’t really explain why he’d shied away from confronting his opponent, either publicly or privately. His top strategists knew immediately that he’d blown it, but not quite how much damage it had done: It turned out that the Pawlenty communications shop had tipped the journalists covering the New Hampshire debate that Pawlenty would press the “Obamneycare” line of attack, which ensured a bigger pushback from the punditry. And the finance folks soon reported back that the reaction from prospective donors was devastating.
Typical of them was influential California bundler Marty Wilson, who had met Pawlenty in China, of all places, and was impressed with him. He was considering backing the former Minnesota governor — until the night of June 13. Watching the debate in his Sacramento office, Wilson couldn’t believe what he had seen. “I practically threw my shoe at the television,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, how did he not hit that question out of the park?’ ”
Headquarters was thrown into crisis mode. The Pawlenty effort had largely been free of the backbiting and power struggles endemic to presidential campaigning, and even now, there was a minimum of second-guessing. In one way, Pawlenty’s flub highlighted an inner decency that they all admired in their candidate. On the other hand, his reluctance to challenge Romney had forced their hand.
“After the New Hampshire debate, we looked at each other and asked, what’s the next event where we can change the narrative?” said one top campaign strategist. “It was the Ames straw vote. We basically went all-in.”…
“In many ways, it’s a tragedy,” says Taylor. “He’s our best candidate. The activists don’t like Obama? Tim Pawlenty is the anti-Obama. He’s the guy of substance, the guy with the best chance of beating Obama. The activists don’t care. They want someone who is loud. And loud he is not.”