I think Josh Marshall is almost certainly overstating the significance of Tim Pawlenty’s big whiff when he choked and failed to nail Mitt Romney when asked about the Obamneycare construct. Little campaign moments just don’t matter that much. But Pawlenty’s problem isn’t so much that he hurt himself there as that he didn’t help himself. Pawlenty’s has lower name-recognition than Romney, less money than Romney, and worse poll numbers than Romney. He’s the “obvious” sensible alternative to a candidate who many conservatives deem ideologically unacceptable, and yet he’s consistently failed to generate the kind of grasstops enthusiasm that you need to actually win. So while little moments tend not to matter, Pawlenty really needs to help himself by making some moments matter.
A debate is a potential opportunity for a candidate with less money and less name ID. Maybe you can do something that makes a dedicated activist in New Hampshire feel better about you. Maybe you can show a South Carolina state legislator that you’ve got more mojo than he’s heard. Maybe you can generate some buzz at a conservative church group. And Pawlenty didn’t do anything like that.
It all reenforces the sense that conservatives are Waiting For Rick Perry, hoping for the emergence of a figure that will let them evade the Romney or Bachmann choice they’d rather avoid.