Pawlenty defends debate performance, as Republicans question his willingness to take on Romney

A day after launching a big attack on Mitt Romney's health care plan, Tim Pawlenty notably declined to repeat his critique during last night's 2012 GOP debate in New Hampshire--prompting members of his party to question his willingness to take on the GOP frontrunner.

As The Ticket previously reported, Pawlenty went after the health care plan Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts, describing it as "Obamneycare" because of its comparisons to President Obama's controversial health care law.

It was a notable change in strategy, given the former Minnesota governor had previously refused to criticize Romney on the issue. But confronted with his remarks last night as Romney stood a few feet away, Pawlenty declined to repeat his criticism and offered a fumbling response as to why.

"President Obama is the person I quoted," Pawlenty awkwardly explained. "Using the term 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments."

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Pawlenty defended his debate response, insisting his response Monday wasn't any different from his attack on Sunday.

"I said essentially the same thing in [the debate] as I did Sunday morning, which is that President Obama used the Massachusetts health care plan as the blueprint, and that's why I dubbed it Obamneycare," he said. "I used that same term last night. So I don't understand what the kerfuffle's about. I said the same thing in both appearances."

But his lackluster response to the "Obamneycare" question still prompted plenty of eye rolling among top GOP strategists, who have privately questioned for months whether Pawlenty is "too nice" to get aggressive on his GOP opponents or Obama.

"Tim Pawlenty had a chance to get in the ring tonight with the heavyweight champion … (But) he refused to enter the ring," GOP ad man Alex Castellanos, a former Romney adviser, told Politico's Jonathan Martin. "It was like Lebron refusing to take the big shot (Sunday) night."

Meanwhile, Jim Dyke, a former Bush strategist who had been working for Haley Barbour, took a shot at Pawlenty's decision to go bowling in New Hampshire on Sunday night instead of doing debate prep.

"Pawlenty probably should stick to prep and skip the bowling for the next debate," he told Politico.

Speaking to Fox, Pawlenty again pushed back on the perception that he's "too nice" or "too vanilla" to win the GOP nomination--though he also added that being "vanilla" isn't really that bad.

"Vanilla is the best selling ice cream in the country for a reason," he said. "People know what they are going to get and they like it. It's steady, it's stable and it's seasoned. That's what the country needs.

(Photo of Pawlenty: Jim Cole/AP)

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