Free advice, they say, is worth what you pay for it. But I think Tim Pawlenty could us some, so here goes.

Pawlenty last Sunday coined a clever phrase (ObamneyCare) in going after his principal opponent on that opponent’s principal weakness. He did it without a snarl. It was well executed and immediately picked up by the media. (I’m not commenting on the substance, just the strategy.)

Then someone presumably told him to cool it in the debates. Voters don’t like negativity. It’s too early to attack. Whoever suggested that, ignoring that the genie could not be put back in the bottle, should be booted from the campaign. That’s the cautious approach. That’s the “Mr. Nice can win this race” tactic. That’s a loser.

Sure enough, in the debate he wimped out. Media folks and political operatives snickered. But, you know, it wasn’t the end of the world. Penny Nance, who represents 500,000 conservative women, thought he did fine. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform joked with me that the media were behaving like a medieval crowd deprived of a gruesome beheading. He likewise thought Pawlenty’s answers during the debate were solid. In other words, it was a mistake but not a tragic one.

Then Pawlenty made it worse.

First, he threw another missive, via Twitter, which made him appear like he was brave enough to criticize Mitt Romney only from a distance. Moreover, the message was defensive: “On seizing debate opportunity re: healthcare: Me 0, Mitt 1. On doing healthcare reform the right way as governor: Me 1, Mitt 0.”

Then it got even worse. Pawlenty went on Sean Hannity’s show and apologized for being a wimp on Monday. His campaign decided this was a good thing and sent around the transcript, which included this:

Hannity: Appreciate you being back. It’s interesting. I’ve read all the criticism, and this was my take: I think the media was furious you guys didn’t kill each other, or go after each other. And that everybody on that stage, rightly I think, went after President Obama’s failed policies.

Pawlenty: Well, I think in response to that direct question, I should have been much more clear during the debate, Sean. I don’t think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of ObamaCare and then continues to defend it. And that was the question, I should’ve answered it directly; instead I stayed focused on Obama. But the question really related to the contrast with Governor Romney, and I should have been more clear, I should have made the point that he was involved in developing it, he really laid the groundwork for ObamaCare and continues to this day to defend it. I think that’s a legitimate point in response to the question I was asked and I should have been more clear.

Hannity: . . . Romney’s argument is, and I’m just giving you a chance to respond, is that he doesn’t think the federal government has a right, but he does think the states have the right to do it over the federal government. In other words, it’s a states issue. I wanted to get your reaction to that.

Pawlenty: Well, I don’t think you can prosecute the political case against President Obama if you are a co-conspirator in one of the main charges against the President on a political level. And so it really puts our nominee if that’s who it turns out to be in a very difficult spot. And I understand that Governor Romney argument that it is different at the state level. When you look at these two plans with only modest variations they are very similar and nearly identical.

This entire effort at “damage control” (which probably was unneeded) was too late, too defensive and only underscored the issue. (Did he wimp on wimping?) An experienced Republican consultant e-mailed me last night, “Good grief!” That’s one way of putting it.

Many Republicans, seeing a pruned field and a good first debate by Pawlenty (albeit against the minor candidates), were beginning to perk up. Pawlenty has a solid conservative record in a blue state, a Reaganesque foreign policy and excellent credentials with social conservatives. But the question is about him. How tough is he? Is there a drop of Chris Christie in there somewhere? This incident unfortunately put an exclamation point on the concerns at a time when Pawlenty has shown virtually no movement in the polls and hasn’t shown the ability to draw in a flock of donors (the donor problem may be related to the poll numbers, no matter how premature they may be).

If Pawlenty thinks “nice” is going to win it, he’s mistaken. That doesn’t mean he has to be “mean.” It means he has to take the fight to opponents. If he can’t do that in a primary, voters and donors won’t believe he can do it in the general election. He needs to find a voice range, a vocabulary and an argument that suits him (phoniness is a sure loser) and then stick with it.

If he wants a model, he should look at Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Does anyone doubt he is tough as nails, able to engage Obama and an excellent advocate for his side? Does anyone doubt he’s not afraid to go on the offensive? Yet he is invariably pleasant, substantive, detailed and optimistic. Come to think of it, if Pawlenty doesn’t get his act together, maybe . . . . Oh, no. That’d be too much to hope for. Or would it?