Tim Pawlenty was the candidate who was going to be the not-Romney candidate conservatives could rally around.

A successful relatively conservative Governor of a blue state, someone who had managed well, had campaign organization, and could bridge the gap between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party.

While I didn’t endorse Pawlenty, I was favorably inclined.

Pawlenty came out tough, going after Mitt Romney over what Pawlenty dubbed “Obamneycare”:

When it came to punching out at Romney from a distance Pawlenty was good. But at the first debate at which the two were on stage together, Pawlenty wimped out, failing to confront Romney mano-a-mano over the Obamneycare attack:

The inability to confront Romney in person ended Pawlenty’s chance of getting the nomination. Even Pawlenty admitted the mistake.

Fast forward.  Various Romney supporters in the blogosphere and Washington media have ramped up their attacks on Newt, but without much success since they are preaching to their own pro-Romney choirs.

The Romney campaign recognizes that with Newt surging and leading in many polls and drawing overflow crowds at every campaign stop, the Romney campaign itself needs to unload on Newt.  But rather than having Romney do it himself, the campaign has devised an attack plan based on the use of surrogates like Chris Christie to go after Newt.

This is consistent with the Romney campaign’s cloistering of Romney, keeping him off Sunday shows and even off Fox News’ Center Seat.  Romney’s complaints about Bret Baier’s questioning of him simply elevated the impression that Romney is unwilling to fight for himself by himself.

Newt, by contrast, does not have to go after Romney.  Newt’s campaign theme since the start has been not to attack others.  Whether by masterful design or dumb luck, Newt has boxed his competitors into having to go on the attack.

Attacks on Newt by Romney surrogates are not going to cut it.  Chris Christie declined to run despite being wooed as the best hope for a not-Romney nominee.  Christie can do his tough guy routine all he wants, but it just draws a sharp contrast with Romney’s passive stance.

Romney needs to go after Newt himself at the next debate.  Mike Huckabee’s candidate forum Saturday night is the first opportunity, although because the candidates will not be on stage at the same time a face-to-face confrontation will not be possible.  Nonetheless, Romney has a national stage with which to take on Newt himself, and Newt will have a chance to respond.

The most important opportunities for Romney will be at the December 10 Des Moines Register / ABC Newt News Debate and December 15 Iowa Republican Party / Fox News Debate.  The candidates will be on stage together.

Ten to 15 days seems like an eternity in this election cycle, so who knows where things will stand by mid-December.  But if the Newt surge has not faded, Romney needs to man up and confront Newt on stage, face-to-face, without equivocating or backpedaling.  And he needs to land punches, not just throw them.

If Romney does not effectively confront Newt on stage in Iowa at the debates later this month, Romney will be Tim Pawlenty and the entire nation will know it.