Jonathan Bernstein defends the idea that Pawlenty was a competitive candidate:

I think what I said about Pawlenty at the time holds up pretty well now. The idea is that anyone can catch fire, short-term; who does well in the next debate, or the next news cycle, is essentially unpredictable. However, what happens next is much more predictable. If the candidate who catches fire is Michele Bachmann, or Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich, then that candidate will have a brief surge followed by a collapse. If it’s a candidate with conventional credentials and mainstream views within the party, then that candidate may be able to capitalize on the surge.

As it happens, Pawlenty never had the surge he needed. I still see no reason to believe he could not have had a surge; it’s just that he didn’t. Which is why, at the end of the day, I suspect that Pawlenty and Rick Perry were the real runners-up to Mitt Romney in the 2012 cycle, and not Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul.

Bernstein is correct that some candidates are in a much better position to take advantage of polling surges than others, but this is where the argument for Pawlenty falls apart. Despite being unjustifiably treated as a “top-tier” candidate from the beginning, Pawlenty’s fundraising was always very poor. This was partly because he had positioned himself as the acceptable consensus candidate not named Romney, and he provided no compelling reason why donors should prefer him rather than settle for Romney. It’s doubtful he could have taken advantage of a polling surge if he had ever had one because of his campaign’s limited resources, and his campaign was so thoroughly conventional and his public persona so completely uninspiring that it seems unlikely that he would have been able to have the polling surge in the first place.

I don’t think a case can be made that two of the more ineffective candidates in the field were the “real” runners-up. Whatever else one wants to say about them, the perception of Pawlenty as uninspiring and ineffective and the perception of Perry as clueless and unprepared have become truths about their abilities as national politicians. They aren’t recovering from that, so they can’t be the “real” runners-up.

P.S. The original post Bernstein is defending concludes this way:

So: if we compare weaknesses, we get…Pawlenty? Hasn’t caught fire at all. Perry? Might not even run, might prove a weak candidate if he does. Romney? Health care, abortion, religion. Bachmann? Uh, that Republicans would be nuts to nominate her? Yeah. Out of that group, it’s not hard at all for me to picture Pawlenty solving his problems a lot more easily than the others solving theirs [bold mine-DL].

The reality is that most of the weaknesses attributed to Romney were already factored in by the middle of last year, and he was still the de facto front-runner and well-positioned to be the eventual nominee. Romney’s record on abortion was old news in 2011, health care was never going to be as much of a liability as many people thought. His religion mattered, but there was always a majority of Republicans that didn’t care about this. Pawlenty’s weakness wasn’t just that he hadn’t “caught fire at all.” He hadn’t “caught fire” because he was an uninspiring candidate whose candidacy had no rationale except that he wasn’t Romney. Pawlenty’s problems were built into his presidential campaign. In order to be the candidate “who can appeal to every faction within the Republican Party and draw an attempted veto of none of them,” as Bernstein described him, he had to suppress every quasi-populist instinct he had that made him even marginally interesting in the past. He pandered so egregiously to the different party factions that he made Romney appear dignified by comparison, and the result was that he was promoting an agenda that only Republican elites and pundits found attractive or plausible. The voters that saw him up close were understandably unimpressed. Pawlenty successfully turned himself into a cardboard cutout of a Republican presidential candidate, but that’s all that he became.