As Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has surged in the polls, her fellow Minnesotan, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, has seethed. How can someone he outranked in the State Senate, who has no legislative achievements and a long record of embarrassing gaffes, be flying past him? Seeing that Bachmann is his main competition in their neighboring state of Iowa and among social conservatives, Pawlenty has been aggressively attacking her in the last few weeks. On Meet the Press he said, “Her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent.” Last week Pawlenty told an audience in Iowa that Bachmann has “a pattern of being inaccurate.”

Now a Pawlenty campaign worker has apparently called Iowa Republicans saying that Bachmann is unstable. According to Ryan Rhodes, 28, who serves as Chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, he received a call last Saturday from a Pawlenty campaign intern. She inquired as to who he might support in the upcoming Ames Straw Poll, and proceeded to trash Tea Party favorites Herman Cain and Bachmann.

“I told them why I backed off Pawlenty,” recalls Rhodes, “and she said something not nice about Herman Cain—but then she said Bachmann is crazy.”

Rhodes doesn’t remember specifically what the intern said about Cain because he “was more upset about the comment about Bachmann.” The essence of the knock on Cain was that he excessively quotes the homespun wisdom of his grandmother. (For example, at the June 13 Republican debate Cain quoted his grandmother on Libya, saying, “It’s a mess.”) As Rhodes ironically notes, this criticism of Cain constitutes “using something unsubstantive to mock Herman Cain for being unsubstantive” [sic].

When the subject turned to Bachmann, the intern said you can’t vote for Bachmann because, “My God, she’s a crazy woman.”

This gambit apparently backfired, as many of Pawlenty’s attacks on Bachmann have. Rhodes says he also disliked the op-ed in the Des Moines Register by Bachmann’s former chief of staff Ron Carey in which he endorsed Pawlenty and scathingly criticized Bachmann. Carey called Bachmann “unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office,” and said she lacks “the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president.” Bachmann’s Congressional office is notorious for high turnover and has many disgruntled former staffers. This presents a major potential liability for her campaign, as these staffers criticize her publicly. On the other hand, many of their attacks, such as the anonymous quotes about her migraines, may win her a measure of sympathy.

Rhodes says he interrupted the intern, explaining that he is seriously considering supporting Bachmann. “I was pretty offended,” says Rhodes. “That kind of thing turns me off to campaigns. You can attack someone on the substance, but to attack them on an unfounded accusation, I think those things are the politics we don’t want to get into.”

After the call ended Rhodes posted about the incident on his Facebook page. According to Rhodes, the Pawlenty campaign saw the Facebook posting and Pawlenty’s Iowa state director Erik Helland called Rhodes to apologize. Rhodes then took the posting off his Facebook wall. The Pawlenty campaign did not respond to a request for comment. They also did not offer much to Rhodes in the way of explanation as to how this happened.

It may, of course, have just been one young intern going off the reservation. But it’s interesting that this particular error reflects an impolitic version of the Pawlenty campaign’s pitch: that he is the least problematic choice they have. The rationale for Pawlenty’s candidacy cited in the media, and less directly by Pawlenty himself, is that his positions are generically conservative, but he is the most electable choice. Former moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have histories that conservative primary voters dislike. Ardent conservatives such as Cain and Bachmann lack experience or policy expertise. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are unpopular among moderates and discredited in the media. Pawlenty offers a safe choice by process of elimination.

Given that Tea Party activists nominated such polarizing, gaffe-prone firebrands as Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino and Christine O’Donnell for statewide office in the 2010 Republican primaries, Pawlenty’s pitch seems unlikely to inspire Tea Partiers. Of course—as Pawlenty would no doubt point out in private—Paladino, Angle and O’Donnell all lost in the general election.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.