Pawlenty rebuts critics: I didn't back down from Romney on healthcare

Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday defended his decision to use kid gloves with Mitt Romney during Monday night's presidential primary debate.

Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, said that he did not shift his debate tone from Sunday, when he dubbed President Obama's healthcare law "ObamneyCare" during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." At the debate, Pawlenty refused to use the term again.

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"I think people may have been expecting an attack on Mitt Romney and I just repeated what I said on the Sunday show and tried to focus on President Obama," Pawlenty said during an interview on CNN. "President Obama was the one who indicated he used the Massachusetts healthcare plan as the blueprints for ObamaCare."

Pawlenty's decision to pull his punches with Romney on healthcare reform raised eyebrows and caused some GOP strategists and commentators to question the candidate's toughness. 

Other Republican candidates, and Democrats, have hit Romney on healthcare. They argue that the plan he passed as governor of Massachusetts is too similar to Obama's healthcare law and that the presumed front-runner lacks credibility when criticizing Obama's law.

The question about Pawlenty's "ObamneyCare" remark was arguably the best chance for a candidate onstage to criticize Romney, but instead, he escaped the debate largely unscathed, leading many political observers to pick him as Monday night's winner.

But Pawlenty, a first-time presidential candidate, did not express regret and instead argued it's better to keep the focus on President Obama.

"The debate was focused primarily on Barack Obama and his failure as a president," he said. "We've got high levels of unemployment, $4-a-gallon gas, a federal government that's out of control. There's going to be some differences between the Republican candidates, but the focus last night was on Barack Obama."