Pawlenty vs. Bachmann: No More Mr. Nice Guy

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Tim Pawlenty didn’t have much choice: He had to go after Michele Bachmann sooner or later. The Minnesota congresswoman has completely overshadowed Pawlenty’s campaign, and appears on track to finish first or second in Iowa’s caucuses, where Pawlenty had banked on a splash-making strong showing that could vault him into subsequent primaries. (His advisers insist that Iowa is not make-or-break for him, although that may be wishful thinking. Right now it’s not clear that Pawlenty can survive losing next month’s Ames straw poll.)Going on the offensive against Bachmann could pose a risk, in that it might undermine a core component of Pawlenty’s image as a decent, likeable, nice guy. But he’s hardly taking a vicious approach. Pawlenty is saying something pretty obvious, which is that Bachmann gives appealing speeches but doesn’t have much of a legislative record (“nonexistent,” he calls it). This is something virtually every Republican said about Barack Obama in 2008. And there’s a more ad hominem (or feminem, as the case may be) angle of attack on Bachmann’s judgment and management skills, one which Pawlenty has thus far left to others.

Moreover, Pawlenty’s reputation for niceness, while perhaps appealing to voters who dislike negative politics, has come with a downside. After Pawlenty declined to bash Mitt Romney in the last GOP debate, some party activists wondered whether he lacks the toughness for the savage presidential arena. A few well-landed punches will help to dispel those concerns.

And I wouldn’t underestimate the damage a few sharp blows might do to Bachmann’s popularity. Sure, she is surging in Iowa and New Hampshire, and her favorability rating in Iowa is tremendous. But I suspect that most Iowa voters know very little about Bachmann beyond the well-crafted stemwinders and soundbites she has offered on television over the past few months. It’s all upside for her right now. But there are obvious downsides, both in her record (here‘s an interesting new example) and her general election potential. Once those arguments start to get a hearing, it’s possible that her momentum will fizzle. At least, so Pawlenty must hope.

And by the way, the person who must be enjoying all this the most? Mitt Romney. Since Romney can afford to lose Iowa, but Pawlenty perhaps cannot, the former Massachusetts governor can sit back and let Pawlenty do the rough work of chopping Bachmann down to size. It’s conceivable that Pawlenty would bring down Bachmann without surging himself, opening to door to a possible Romney win in Iowa, or at least a strong showing, which would make him awfully hard to beat down the line.