Why did Tim Pawlenty both throw a grenade and then throw his body on the same explosive he had just lobbed?
That's the curious question many people are pondering in the aftermath of Pawlenty's performance at the New Hampshire Republican presidential debate.
On Sunday, Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, uttered his shot heard round the political world when on a morning talk show he created a hybrid beast he dubbed "Obamneycare."
It was as direct and clever an attack on Romney as many had heard for his signing a health-care law as Massachusetts governor that contained an individual mandate requiring most people to purchase health insurance.
President Obama has said the law was a model for the federal legislation and many conservatives who hate the law Obama signed have looked askance at Romney's willingness as governor to impose an individual mandate on his citizens.
On Fox News Sunday, Pawlenty clearly went after Romney:
PAWLENTY: Well, you don't have to take my word for it. You can take President Obama's word for it. President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare. And so, we now have the same features — essentially the same features. The president's own words is that he patterned in large measure Obamacare after what happened in Massachusetts. And what I don't understand is they both continue to defend it.
The meaning was unmistakable. He was putting Romney on notice that was coming after the Republican frontrunner on one of his biggest vulnerabilities. Pawlenty seemed to be signaling that he aimed to make Romney appear unacceptable as the Republican Party's nominee since Romney would be unable to persuasively contrast himself on the health insurance issue.
That would leave Pawlenty as the alternative to Romney.
But a funny thing must've happened on the way to the debate. Pawlenty changed his mind. Not only did he not attack Romney on health care as he had on Fox News Sunday, he tried to smother his own previous attack. It wasn't pretty.
KING: And you don't want to address why you called Governor Romney's Obamneycare?
PAWLENTY: Well, the issue that was raised in a question from a reporter was, what are the similarities between the two? And I just cited President Obama's own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint or a guide when he designed Obamacare.
KING: But you chose — you say you were asked a question, which is fair enough, but you chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those — choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on "Fox News Sunday," why isn't it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
PAWLENTY: It — President Obama is — is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term "Obamneycare" was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
KING: All right.
So the question is, what happened? Pawlenty had teed up the attack and failed to follow through. Did he get cold feet? Did the party big wigs get to him and tell him to back off? Does he want to be Romney's vice presidential pick?
Some conservatives, suspicious of Romney in part but not solely because of the Massachusetts health care law, were looking for Pawlenty to go in for the kill. But he didn't.
His spokesman Alex Conant said the gameplan going into the debate was to attack Obama and that's what Pawlenty did, according to a statement on the National Review Online's The Corner blog:
"[CNN moderator] John King wanted more of an intra-party squabble between all the candidates," says Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant, referring to King's pointed questioning about the Obamneycare term. "But we really came to this debate with our focus on Obama and wanting to make the case that Governor Pawlenty had the experience vision and record to be able to compete with President Obama and beat President Obama."
Well, King could be forgiven thinking that Pawlenty was hostile to what Romney did in Massachusetts on health care since the former Minnesota governor did use Obamneycare.
Unfortunately for Pawlenty, by backing away from attacking Romney when he had a high profile chance, he left himself wide open for Republicans to ask the question, "If you won't confront Romney, how do we know you'll go after Obama sufficiently to defeat him in November 2012?"
Maybe Pawlenty will get another chance to show his toughness. But maybe not. And maybe the impression left Monday night will be so strong, nothing else he does will be able to overcome it.