Speaking on CNN's American Morning on Tuesday, Tim Pawlenty defended himself against the perception that he didn't perform well at Monday night's presidential debate.
When asked on the program about a National Journal’s Insider Poll, in which a slim plurality of Republican and Democratic Insiders ranked Pawlenty as the biggest loser of the night, Pawlenty replied: "I think I saw a poll... that had me in the top three or four of some National Journal [Insiders]."
He's right, technically. Among the political operatives, campaign consultants, and party strategists surveyed, 26 percent of Republicans and 30 percent of Democrats said Pawlenty was the biggest loser. But, when asked who the biggest winner of the night was, 9 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats chose Pawlenty, giving him the third spot among both groups, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
He is, however, trailing both by wide margins: 51 percent of Republican Insiders picked Romney as the winner and more than one-third of the Democratic Insiders concurred.
Romney won points when he was able to deflect criticism that the health care reform plan he helped enact in Massachusetts inspired the national health care reform passed by President Obama and congressional Democrats.
“I think people may have been expecting an attack on Mitt Romney,” Pawlenty said. “... [I] tried to focus on President Obama.”
Republican Insiders thought that Pawlenty, who many see as Romney’s biggest threat right now, erred when he seemed to distance himself from his critique of Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and "Obamneycare," the term he coined last Sunday to describe the president's Massachusetts-inspired health care plan.
“Who is going to write a check to the guy who pulls his punches?” asked one GOP Insider. “He looked foolish in the beginning by disowning ‘Obamney-care’ and lacked confidence,” said another. “Missed an opportunity to join Romney as a cut above the other candidates,” said a third.
On news shows throughout the morning, Pawlenty was repeatedly asked about the decision not to hit Romney on health care, as he did on Sunday. But he insisted on Fox & Friends that he had attacked.
"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, and 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," he said.
But he did embrace the suggestion that he may be "too vanilla" to be president.
"Vanilla is the best-selling ice cream in the country for a reason," Pawlenty said. "People know what they are going to get and they like it. It's steady, it's stable, and it's seasoned, and that's what the country needs."
James A. Barnes and Rebecca Kaplan contributed