By Michael O'Brien - 09/07/11 11:36 AM EDT
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said Wednesday that he viewed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) as the strongest GOP candidate against President Obama at the moment, but stopped short of an endorsement.
Pawlenty, the erstwhile Republican presidential candidate, said he saw the race winnowing down to a two-way contest between Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). He didn't declare a favorite between the two, however.
Pawlenty stressed the need for a Republican nominee who can appeal to a broad section of the electorate, including Independents and Democrats. He said that Romney had the edge there, too.
"Mitt Romney, I think, can do that. Rick Perry, we'll see," he said.
An endorsement for Romney would put Pawlenty in a somewhat difficult awkward position politically, given all the political energy the Minnesotan dedicated to taking Romney down a few notches when he was running for the nomination. Pawlenty coined the term "ObamneyCare" to tie together the healthcare plan Romney signed as governor and Obama's national healthcare reform law.
Pawlenty handicapped both Romney and Perry going into tonight's highly-anticipated showdown in a Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Romney, Pawlenty said, had done "very well" at previous debates by focusing on Obama, and would look to repeat that performance. Pawlenty suggested that Romney going on the attack might come off poorly. Perry, by contrast, would have to make a good first impression with voters during his debate premiere, the former Minnesota governor suggested.