Those in the mood for some good primary season political theater over the weekend got what they were looking for. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann spent most of Sunday trading verbal punches, in what was the first real skirmish between Republican candidates.

The conventional wisdom is that Pawlenty, trailing far behind Bachmann in the polls and in need of a good dustup to put some life back in his campaign, took a shot at the leader in order to send the subtle message to voters that he and Bachmann are on the same tier as candidates. Bachmann, in turn, sought to squash the underdog nipping at her heels. But this analysis is really cut-and-paste campaign reporting, suiting up the players in the media’s choice of costume. In truth, this is only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga in which the roles of Pawlenty and Bachmann are the reverse of what they seem to be.

The newest issue of The New Republic carries a mostly sympathetic profile of Pawlenty by Walter Shapiro. He begins the piece, however, by talking about Bachmann. He explains that in his interview with Pawlenty, he became desperate to offer something besides campaign boilerplate, so he asked Pawlenty about the narrative that Bachmann is the outsider and Pawlenty the establishment. The fire is lit, and Pawlenty comes alive. Shapiro explains:

If Pawlenty was deeply annoyed to have to talk about Bachmann, a back-bencher in the state senate when he was elected governor in 2002, who could really blame him? “Pawlenty has always been the establishment in Minnesota and Bachmann has always been the renegade,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. “Pawlenty thought that she was kind of a crackpot. He would roll his eyes when her name came up.” Democrat Roger Moe—the former longtime majority leader of the state senate who lost the 2002 gubernatorial race to Pawlenty—describes his rival as “the kind of guy you can have a beer with” despite their political differences. But Moe cannot resist chuckling: “I can just tell you—I know for sure on the inside of him—that Tim Pawlenty is just seething over Bachmann. I bet they have to lock him in a room some days when he reads about her.”

The point of the Pawlenty-Bachmann rivalry is in that paragraph: Pawlenty sees Bachmann as the “back-bencher,” and Bachmann sees Pawlenty as “the establishment.” Contrary to the narrative we’re reading about this fight, Bachmann and Pawlenty are locked in the mindset they’ve been in for a decade now, and we’re all watching this psychodrama play out on a national stage. Pawlenty has always had to look over his shoulder at Bachmann and has developed an understandable resentment about it. He believes he is the conservative governor of a blue state who managed to win election (and reelection) while advocating conservative values.

Bachmann, for her part, has always seen Pawlenty as the roadblock to her success. He is the establishment leader who has become the state GOP’s standard-bearer–but who fails to meet the standards of the 21st century conservative movement. Without the dispensing of Pawlenty, Bachmann remains an insurgent, not the embodiment of her state’s Republican party. That’s no platform for a national candidacy.

And that is what’s behind Bachmann’s response to Pawlenty’s shot at her lack of experience. She agreed she lacked the experience and essentially confirmed the premise of Pawlenty’s critique–that she has been an ineffectual congresswoman at best. But, she declared, it’s all about the ideas. That response is the opposite of what she would have said if she truly felt she was well above Pawlenty in the race. She could have played it as if the mere suggestion Pawlenty is on her level is a joke.

But, she couldn’t resist. The irony of all this is that Bachmann merely has to wait Pawlenty out. This is his last turn in the spotlight, and she’ll likely be a player for a while. Pawlenty had to take his parting shot. Bachmann just had to be patient. But, she just couldn’t resist.

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