Instead of getting in Mitt Romney's face and smacking him around with the memorable "Obamneycare" neologism he coined over the weekend, Pawlenty wimped out.
"Why Obamneycare?" CNN host John King kept asking, over and over, as Pawlenty retreated to one rhetorical corner or another, trying to change the subject and duck the fight.
It was like watching one of those Law & Order assistant DAs break down a witness on the stand. Finally, as Romney patiently smiled, King targeted his prey, and told Pawlenty it was time to admit what everyone else in the room already knew.
KING: You chose those words. And so one of my questions is, why would you chose those -- choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was Obamneycare on "Fox News Sunday," why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right there?
PAWLENTY: It -- President Obama is -- is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He's the one who said it's a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so using the term "Obamneycare" was a reflection of the president's comments that he designed Obamacare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
Pawlenty's dogged determination to avoid a fight with Romney was emblematic of the "debate" in general: There was no debate. CNN offered the seven Republicans two hours of fact-check-free sound bites, which they all used in concert to trash Barack Obama, a guy who wasn't around to actually debate and defend the positions they were all attacking.
Like Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty did try to make some news. But while she briefly sucked all the oxygen out of the room with her official presidential intentions, his gambit was to talk about ending Medicare as we know it -- and he barely left a ripple in the room.
Because let's face it, when you share a stage with people who declare they would have stood by while the nation's banks and financial markets collapsed, and the Big Three automakers went belly up, it's hardly notable that you'd cast oldsters at the feet of the insurance industry.
But for the rest of the night, T-Paw was lost in the right wing talking points: God is great and mandatory, taxes are bad, gays should be in the closet, and Barack Obama is a defeatist declinist namby pamby.
He did warn us not to expect much, though. As long as he remembered to "stand up straight, and don't drool," he'd consider the night a win.