Likely GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty still refuses to go after Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner for the party's 2012 presidential nomination.

Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, has cautiously approached his public statements about Romney, despite having numerous opportunities to criticize the former Massachusetts governor.

At Thursday night's Republican debate in South Carolina, and during subsequent media appearances Friday morning, Pawlenty refused to take questioners' bait and lay into Romney, opting instead to stay positive when it comes to his campaign rival.

While Pawlenty has stressed the need for Republican contenders to go after President Obama, he has refused to slam Romney, who decided not to attend the debate because "it’s still early" and "the field is too unsettled."

“You know, it’s May, and I can understand if people didn’t want to start in December or January. I mean, in the past they’ve said, ‘That’s too early,’ ” Pawlenty told Radio Iowa this week. “Well, you know, it’s time.”

But given an opportunity to criticize the healthcare law Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts, Pawlenty passed, even though other Republicans have said it is too similar to Obama's healthcare overhaul.

"Gov. Romney's not here to defend himself, so I'm not going to pick on him," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty's tempered approach toward Romney does not mean he's ruled out sharpening his jabs at him as the campaign season intensifies. 

While Pawlenty has largely stayed positive toward Romney, he has not been afraid to throw elbows at others. He appeared to frustrate House Republicans when he came out against a deal to prevent a government shutdown.

And the large field of potential Republican includes several contenders who have already ripped Romney's healthcare law, leaving Pawlenty with the luxury of refraining from attacks for now.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), a potential 2012 candidate who ran against Romney in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, in his new book described the Bay State law as "socialized medicine," an insult usually reserved for Obama's law.

Pawlenty expanded on his decision not to attack Romney Friday morning, saying that Republicans need to be united in this stage of the campaign to effectively make their case against the president.

“I am going to try and follow Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, and that’s don’t criticize other Republicans. At the end of this we are going to have to be a team if we are going to get the country back on the right track," he explained.

"He’s a friend," Pawlenty said of Romney. "Our focus here is President Obama, not Mitt Romney, not some other Republican candidate."

—Michael O'Brien and Shane D'Aprile contributed