PAWLENTY DISTANCES HIMSELF FROM PALIN’S CROSSHAIRS…. For a couple of days, much of the right was livid that Sarah Palin’s rifle crosshairs, targeting Democrats last year, was part of the conversation about the massacre in Tucson. To mention Palin’s “reload” campaign, conservatives said, was to unfairly cast blame.

As of this morning, it’s not just the left questioning whether Palin’s use of symbols was inappropriate.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said that Sarah Palin’s decision to put crosshairs on districts of vulnerable Democrats — including Rep. Giffords’ — wasn’t what he would have done, but he doesn’t think it contributed to the terrible tragedy in Tucson on Saturday.

“It wouldn’t have been my style to put the crosshairs on there. But again there is no evidence to suggest that it had anything to do with this mentally unstable person’s rage and senseless act in Arizona,” Pawlenty told me.

I guess Pawlenty hasn’t heard that the crosshairs were actually “surveyor’s symbols“?

For the record, I happen to agree with Pawlenty on this, and as I said yesterday, I’m not buying the argument that Palin bears any responsibility for Saturday’s violence. Barring additional information about Jared Lee Loughner’s motivations, the entire discussion strikes me as rather strained.

But I’m mentioning this because notable Republican officials, especially those seeking national office, tend to be pretty reluctant to criticize the former half-term governor at all. Pawlenty, who had to realize the question was coming, dipped his toe into the water this morning, ever so slightly, probably because he feels like he can get away with it, and perhaps as a test to see what kind of blowback there is, if any.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.