By holding the segment of the electorate that is looking for a mature, pro-free-market candidate with executive experience, Romney has deprived Pawlenty of a unique message for his campaign. Or to put it differently, by failing to go for the jugular on health care, he gave Romney a free pass and fumbled away the rationale for his own candidacy. ~Jennifer Rubin

Romney didn’t deprive Pawlenty of a unique message of his campaign. The trouble is that Pawlenty’s “unique message” never existed apart from telling stories about his working-class upbringing. Like Huntsman, he has been trying to run as a virtual copy of Romney without Romney’s baggage. His candidacy had no rationale, but he started running anyway. This may be why those who knew him in Minnesota have no idea what happened to the Pawlenty they knew. As Sean Scallon said in his TAC profile:

Pawlenty, like the proverbial five-star recruit, has a great deal of potential as a national politician, but there’s a reason his polling numbers are dismal—an explanation beyond simple lack of name recognition. In a new era where the search for authenticity dominates our political discourse, Pawlenty’s lack of it makes him a has-been before he ever was.

One strange thing about the nomination contest so far is that Romney has benefited greatly from the exaggerated importance that almost everyone attached to his health care record. This was the thing that was supposed to doom Romney’s chances, but this was always based on the far-fetched idea that Republican primary voters were deeply concerned about Massachusetts’ use of an individual mandate. As Romney has pledged to repeal the Democrats’ federal health care legislation, this never made much sense to me. So the idea that Pawlenty sabotaged himself by not attacking Romney on health care is a bit odd.

According to one consultant Rubin contacted, this makes Pawlenty a “punch-puller,” but this puts far too much importance on one moment at one debate. Pawlenty’s main problem is that he has generated so little support in Iowa despite all the time he has spent there and the organization he has built up in the state. No doubt his debate performance didn’t help his fundraising, but his fundraising was already fairly poor. There may be an even more straightforward explanation than this. The Ward/Stein article related this detail:

“He surrounds himself with people that say ‘yes’ and tell him how good he’s doing, but he doesn’t have a lot of people who can take the chance at critiquing him, and that’s a problem he’s had for a long time,” Molnau added.

It is possible that Pawlenty has continued to struggle so much in Iowa and nationally because he is doing something seriously wrong and no one around him will tell him. Perhaps it’s just as well. We have had our fill of Presidents living in a bubble and surrounded by yes-men. If that’s what we could expect from a Pawlenty administration, we’re better off if his campaign fails now.

Update: James Joyner says that there was never a reason to take Pawlenty seriously as a top-tier candidate:

Pawlenty is . . . some guy few people have ever heard of who is considered a major contender because the press has inexplicably touted him as one.

It’s not at all clear what his claim to fame is supposed to be. He wasn’t a particularly noteworthy governor and left office after two terms with lukewarm approval ratings. Indeed, he was probably best known for a mullet, which has thankfully been retired. He’s not charismatic. His positions on the issues are boilerplate, indistinguishable from the serious contenders ahead of him. His dropping out of the race would go largely unnoticed.

I imagine quite a few people will notice, if only to ponder why so many people took him seriously as a candidate, but I agree that it isn’t as important as it is being made out to be.