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Will backing off "Obamneycare" in GOP debate hurt Pawlenty's campaign?

Despite going into Monday night's Republican presidential debate with what some have described as significant "insider buzz," many are now questioning candidate Tim Pawlenty's ability to serve up a serious challenge in the contest for the GOP presidential nomination - particularly in light of what was described as his "puzzling decision" to back down from his recent "Obamneycare" line of attack against fellow contender Mitt Romney.

Pawlenty initially invoked the term "Obamneycare" during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," saying "President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and basically made it Obamneycare,"

But when pressed by CNN's John King during the Monday night debate to address his use of the newly-coined catchphrase, Pawlenty backed down.

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"You don't want to address why you called Gov. Romney's Obamneycare?" King asked the former Minnesota governor.

"I just cited President Obama's own words that he looked to Massachusetts as a blueprint," he responded.

"Why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the governor right now?" King pressed.

"President Obama is the person I quoted," Pawlenty insisted. "Using the term 'Obamneycare' was a reflection of the president's comments."

Some pundits wonder if his failure to take on Romney on the issue during the debate will come back to haunt Pawlenty down the road.

"Pawlenty had a chance to show he was tough and capable of beating the GOP field, but he missed it," wrote CBS News political analyst John Dickerson early Tuesday morning.

"Asked about this [Obamneycare] characterization at the debate, Pawlenty wouldn't continue the critique. He had to be forced into it by moderator King," Dickerson continued. "The buzz coming out of the debate was about how he flinched. Buzz is fortunately meaningless in a lot of cases, but not to the people who write campaign checks."

Former governor Tim Pawlenty speaks at NH GOP debate Monday, June 13 CNN

The Post's Chris Cilizza concurred, arguing that Pawlenty's primary challenge for the night had been to prove that his recent buzz was merited - and he failed.

"Pawlenty came into the debate with perhaps the biggest challenge: to prove that the insider buzz he has been generating of late could be translated to a public forum," wrote Cilizza. "By and large he came across as a bit over-programmed. Pawlenty also seemed to pass on a golden opportunity to prove his 'tell the truth' credentials when King asked him about his criticism of Romney's health care plan. Pawlenty demurred even though 36 hours before he had described the law as 'Obamneycare'. Strange."

"It was strange or timid for Tim Pawlenty not to be willing to back up his Sunday attack on 'Obamneycare' with any force tonight," added Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne on Tuesday. "Either you want to take that fight on or you don't."

Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP strategist, suggested in an interview with Politico that Pawlenty's missed opportunity signified a greater weakness in Pawlenty's campaign tactics.

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"Debates are competitions - they are alpha dog battles," he said. "To win one, you have to create what I call an 'MOS,' a moment of strength. Tim Pawlenty had a chance to get in the ring tonight with the heavyweight champion and create such a moment. He refused to enter the ring. It was like LeBron refusing to take the big shot [Sunday] night."

"In a nutshell, it defined the problem with his candidacy: Voters don't think he is tough enough," agreed Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin.

Even if Americans agree, however, that doesn't mean it's all over for Pawlenty: According to Dickerson, "Pawlenty can recover with voters because they're in a shopping mood."

But, he argues, it won't be easy.

"Pawlenty has time, but he'll need money to keep going and to compete. His pitch on the phone for the next two weeks is going to be harder after the debate performance."

According to some commentators, Pawlenty wasn't the only loser of the evening: indeed, according to CBS News political correspondent Jan Crawford, Herman Cain "lost some luster" - particularly in the presence of several more high-profile candidates who were absent in the first debate.

"After a breakout performance in the first debate in South Carolina, Cain suffered tonight with others on the stage," she writes.

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