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Tim Pawlenty takes flak over GOP debate. Was his showing so tragic?

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Really? Everyone played nice Monday night. No one went after the front-runner, and Romney himself was nice back. When given an opportunity to attack Pawlenty’s recently unveiled economic plan, which posits a 5 percent growth rate many economists view as overly optimistic, Romney answered that Pawlenty has “the right instincts.”

“The ideas Tim described, those are in the right wheelhouse,” Romney said.

True, Romney and Pawlenty are not on an equal footing. Romney has established himself as the early front-runner, especially in the all-important New Hampshire primary. His fundraising is unparalleled in the Republican field. Pawlenty still polls in mid-single digits and can’t hope to match Romney’s money, his own campaign acknowledges.

But imagine if Pawlenty had gone negative, and been the only one to do so. Many voters still don’t know him, and if he had stuck out as the only negative candidate on stage toward a fellow contender, that might have set a sour impression in voters’ minds. Remember President Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

“He was determined not to have an internal GOP fight, and keep the focus on Obama,” says former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a co-chairman of the Pawlenty campaign. “I understand he took flak, but his motivation was right. If the Republicans had gotten into a food fight over Romney and health care, a lot of Republicans wouldn’t have liked that either.”

Pawlenty himself took to the airwaves Tuesday morning to defend himself.

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