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Monday night’s GOP debate at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire had voters and political pundits questioning who would emerge as a challenger to the race’s presumed frontrunner, Gov. Mitt Romney. Many believe former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to be this challenger. Over the past weekend, he began increasing his attacks against Romney’s state healthcare law, labeling it “Obamneycare.” However, despite Pawlenty’s best efforts, he has made little progress in becoming the major alternative (take a look at a collection of national polls here). Did Monday night’s debate change anything?

Little was changed for Pawlenty; however, the debate did show that Romney’s biggest challenger will likely come from a Tea Party candidate. 

While most political pundits expected Pawlenty to continue his barrage against Romney on healthcare, he took a less aggressive tone. He refused to use the self-invented term “Obamneycare” and commented mostly on his own healthcare record as a Minnesota governor. In a brief exchange, Pawlenty attempted to link the national and state plans by stating that Romney’s state plan served as “a blueprint for the president’s legislation.” But, Romney effectively deflected the criticism, stating he would “grant a waiver to all fifty states” and pointing out that his plan in Massachusetts “didn’t raise taxes.” For the most part, Pawlenty’s debate performance did little to persuade voters.

Even if Pawlenty had been successful in attacking Romney on healthcare, this strategy was poor to begin with. Unlike previous election cycles, GOP voters are willing to shed ideological purity to find a winner, i.e. a candidate to defeat President Barack Obama. Only 24% of GOP voters said they are looking for a candidate who agrees with them on every issue; when asked if Romney would defeat Obama, approximately two-thirds of them think he will. If these trends continue, it is hard to see Pawlenty making significant gains with a strategy centered on healthcare.

Pawlenty faces another major hurdle: name recognition. More than half of Republican voters have no opinion on the former governor, and he continues to nationally poll in the single digits. Additionally, the issue dominating the debates is the economy. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, Romney continues to shine on economic policy and enjoys enormous credibility.

Monday’s debate did little to effectively position Pawlenty as Romney’s major challenger. If the goal is to defeat Obama and the economy remains the number one issue, it is difficult to see a path for Pawlenty. He will have difficulty climbing out of obscurity and will likely need to build his name recognition before attempting a serious presidential bid. 

That being said, Romney’s challenger will come from a Tea Party supported candidate. For now, that candidate appears to be Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, but formidable Tea Party candidates remain on the sidelines. For example, former Governor Sarah Palin is the most well known and enjoys the highest favorable ratings with GOP voters. However, like Bachmann, most do not believe she can defeat Obama. At least for now, electability trumps ideological purity; I never thought I would see that in modern GOP politics.

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