Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty conceded Thursday that he squandered an opportunity to get tough on 2012 GOP rival Mitt Romney during this Monday's Republican debate.

"Well, I think in response to that direct question, I should have been much more clear during the debate, Sean," Pawlenty said on Fox News's Hannity. "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 have answered it directly. Instead, I stayed focused on Obama, but the question really related to the contrast with Governor Romney."

Supporters and critics alike were befuddled that Pawlenty, who is viewed as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, declined to highlight one of the most significant vulnerabilities of the frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor, especially after dubbing his health care plan "Obamneycare" the day before the debate.

But on Thursday, Pawlenty struck the same tone that dissipated in Romney's presence.

"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 the political level," he said.

Watch the clip, via Fox's Hannity.

[h/t TPM's Eric Kleefeld]