Tim Pawlenty discussing the health care overhaul during Thursday’s debate.
It was little bit like a nationally televised spring training game.
With Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump all sitting it out, a “B” team of Republican presidential candidates took a road trip to Greenville, S.C., to politely duke it out Thursday night.
With that backdrop, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was set to make a splash in the critical early primary state of South Carolina. No GOP candidate since 1980 has eventually gotten his party’s nod for the nomination without first winning the South Carolina primary.
All things considered, Pawlenty did just fine, appearing firm and appropriately outraged when necessary, not making any critical errors, and nimbly touting his website to a national audience in his closing statement.
(For highlights, you can go here.)
But he was also put on the spot a few times during the 90-minute session on Fox News. He was pushed to defend Minnesota’s horrendous state budget crisis — not his fault, he said. He was poked about his environmental flip-flop on “cap-and-trade” — he made a mistake, he said.
He also said he would support “waterboarding” of terrorist suspects in certain circumstances, and he said he would release a photo of a dead Osama bin Laden, something President Obama said he won’t do.
All five focus on bashing Obama
Of course, the major position Pawlenty and his four “opponents” on the dais in Greenville took was to bash Obama. On the stage with Pawlenty were: Rep. Ron Paul, the most libertarian of the group; Herman Cain, a one-time pizza executive and African-American; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
For Pawlenty, who acknowledged he’s not known nationally, it was a time to stand out. A couple of instant reviews from listened-to outlets were somewhere between lukewarm and favorable in their comments afterward.
Nate Silver, the political statistics freak who writes and calculates for the New York Times, tweeted after the TV show: “My (totally subjective) grades: Pawlenty B+, Cain B, Paul C+, Santorum C, Johnson C-.”
Politico’s Ben Smith wrote of Pawlenty: “The low-key Minnesotan failed to dominate the arena amid a motley but presentable crew of second- and third-tier candidates, [but] he proved well prepared both for tough, substantive questions and for the priorities of his South Carolina audience.”
Much of the questioning focused on foreign affairs and Obama’s record. At one point, Pawlenty called the United Nations “pathetic” and criticized Obama for being indecisive on Libya and bowing to the direction of the U.N. and Arab League.
Domestic policy questions for Pawlenty
But the challenges from questioners to Pawlenty keyed in on domestic matters: health care, state budgets and stem cell research.
An issue pointed out by Politco’s Smith and others who tweeted while they watched the session last night was Pawlenty’s decision not to take on apparent GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney when given the chance.
Pawlenty was asked by Fox News reporter Shannon Bream about the popular health care program Romney instituted when he was governor of Massachusetts.
After quoting Pawlenty that he wouldn’t want the country to follow a Romney-style health plan — which has been compared to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — Bream asked: “A poll just weeks ago showed that 84 percent of Massachusetts residents are satisfied with the [Romney] plan. Why isn’t that good enough for you?”
Pawlenty: “Well, Governor Romney’s not here to defend himself, and so I’m not going to pick on him or the position he took in Massachusetts. But I will tell you this, the answer to our health care problem is not to drag it into Washington, D.C., and create a top-down, government-run, centralized, limited-choice, limited-option system.”
Applause followed from the totally Republican crowd.
Pawlenty then went on rip Obama for not working with Republicans on health care reform: “He broke that promise. He went to Washington, D.C., and jammed down our throats one of the most partisan, most misguided pieces of legislation in the modern history of the country. It’s gonna make health care costs worse, not better.”
Chris Wallace, Pawlenty spar
In another key exchange, Fox News reporter Chris Wallace, making like his more famous father Mike Wallace, pressed Pawlenty on this state budget record.
Wallace: “The National Conference of State Legislatures said that you used a lot of one-time fixes — such as taking $2 billion from the Obama stimulus plan — and borrowing billions from local school districts. The bottom line is that you left your state, after your term as governor, with a projected deficit of $6 billion, sir.”
Pawlenty: “Every budget during my time as governor was balanced and the last one of those two-year budgets ends this coming summer, on June 30, and it’s going to end up in the black. Now, when they talk about this projected deficit coming up in the next two years after that, it assumes a 25 percent or so increase in state spending. That’s outrageous. If they live within their means, there would be no deficit at all … This idea that there’s a deficit and I left it in Minnesota is inaccurate.”
Wallace and Pawlenty then sparred about the shifts from local school districts and the unallotment controversy of 2010. Pawlenty stood his ground, even if the analysis of various state economy experts differs from his.
With abortion being a key GOP issue, Pawlenty drew no applause when he said he was in favor of using existing embryonic stem cell lines. He said he favored adult stem cell research. There was a flat silence from the audience.
But on a key South Carolina issue, Pawlenty got worked up and scored points from the crowd.
Recently, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the Boeing Co. for moving production to non-union South Carolina. The NLRB stated that Boeing was retaliating against its unionized workers in Washington State by moving jobs to South Carolina.
When asked a question about unemployment and tax cuts, Pawlenty, who mentioned he grew up “working class” and in a “meat-packing town” a couple of times, pivoted and — his voice rising with anger and indignation — said: “You have this administration through the National Labor Relations Board telling a private company that they cannot relocate to South Carolina and provide jobs in the this state … It’s a preposterous decision and position of this administration.”
“The idea that the federal government can tell a private business where they can be and not be in the United States of America is a whole new line that this administration has crossed,” Pawlenty said, waving his arms.
Fox showed South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley smiling and nodding approval at Pawlenty’s comments.
Pawlenty’s pre-debate op-ed piece prompts buzz
Before the debate, Pawlenty created some inside-the-Beltway buzz.
He posted an opinion piece on the conservative Daily Caller website early Thursday.
In it, Pawlenty wrote: “Minnesota is one of the most liberal states in the country, but I stood up to the Democrats and unions to cut spending, reform entitlements, pass market-based health care and education reforms, and keep a lid on taxes. It wasn’t easy, but after eight years, I was one of only four governors in the country to receive an A grade from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute … Tonight’s debate is an opportunity for the candidates to discuss their records and how best to defeat President Obama. It’s the first step towards getting America back on track.”
The Democratic National Committee quickly responded to the Pawlenty opinion piece, but something goofy happened. An unintended part of an email from an operative was included in the DNC release attacking Pawlenty.
So, instantly Pawlenty’s media guy, Alex Conant, distributed this statement to journalists:
“The Obama campaign is telling the DNC to bury the President’s record — which is understandable, especially considering how poorly it stacks up to Governor Pawlenty’s record of cutting taxes and spending. If the President’s team was more focused on the economy and less focused on politics, then maybe they wouldn’t be so worried about Governor Pawlenty’s strong record and agenda. The Obama re-election campaign and DNC’s coordinated attack on Governor Pawlenty is more evidence that Republicans should not wait to start the campaign.”
This morning, Pawlenty’s campaign zapped reviews and during-debate Tweets around to reporters, including this one from a New York Times blogger:
“According to the Democratic National Committee, it looks like Mr. Pawlenty is the only one on the stage. Halfway through the debate, the D.N.C. had already sent out three long ‘fact check’ e-mails to reporters about the things Mr. Pawlenty said on Thursday night.”
With other top dogs holding back, Pawlenty is off, running and being noticed, even if it is only spring training.